Review

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The Independent Culture
"We don't rape rapists, we don't torch arsonists, we don't cut the hands off thieves," said Don Cubana in When The State Kills, Channel 4's curtain-raiser to a season of programmes about the death penalty. Mr Cubana's point was that "we" do kill killers, something he has a particular authority to talk about, given that his "we" isn't simply a rhetorical abstraction. As an employee of the Mississippi Corrections Department, he personally presided over three executions. Now he teaches criminology and argues against the death sentence with a placid, imperturbable rationality. One of the executions he supervised was that of Edward Johnson, the 26- year-old black man whose final fortnight was recorded in Paul Hamann's superb documentary 14 Days in May. In that film you saw Mr Cubana's conscience on the rack, struggling with the perverse task of exterminating a human while respecting his dignity. Now you get emotion recollected in tranquillity, an account - from someone who has looked through the glass as the poison gas rises - of how the deed and decorum will never be compatible.

When The State Kills was, itself, an exercise in good manners, being essentially a more tasteful version of Executions, the catch-penny video which caused a minor storm a few months ago. Like Executions it traced the history of state killings; like Executions it even showed a few - including some footage of a guillotining in France; like Executions it was accompanied by mournful classical music, an aural doily for the squeamish. Unlike Executions, though, it realised that the spoken word is perfectly capable of conveying the ugly realities that lie behind judicial euphemisms.

It was, despite the grim nature of much of its contents, a rather heartening programme, if only because it suggested a slow fading of the human appetite for revenge. Executions ceased to be public not because the authorities wished to lead the way in humane nicety, but because the crowds were beginning to get a bit choosy about the nature of the spectacle. When felons were hung in England for minor offences the crowd often booed the executioner, conscious that the ultimate sanction weighed more heavily on the poor than the rich. This is still true in America, where your chances of being executed are immeasurably improved if you come from a minority and have killed a white person. (Unless you're famous, of course, in which case the death penalty will be ruled out before the trial begins. Even that, though, testifies to an uneasiness about the act - "we" can only eagerly accept the notion of execution if "we" don't know the condemned man.)

The increasing secrecy of executions, an implicit confession of institutional shame, has been accompanied by a shifty attempt to find more "humane" methods of termination - counter-productive, you would have thought, if deterrence is really the point, but entirely necessary if you are to ask psychologically healthy people to conduct the dismal business. There will, of course, always be people to push the buttons or pull the levers - you saw some of them here - the sort of people who stand outside prisons carrying posters that read "Fry Coon Fry". But the truth is, fortunately, that most people don't aspire to be murderers, however dignified or deliberated the act of murder is.

Siege Doctors (BBC2) offered a bleak sort of consolation too, though it seemed long odds at first. It looked like it was the worst kind of ratings calculation - combine the mania for medical documentary with topical shellfire and you have a surefire hit - but this account of volunteer doctors and nurses working in Sarajevo hospitals proved better than that cynical prejudgement - an oblique account of the miseries of the Bosnian war and a reminder that humanity clings on against the most grievous odds.

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