The news of Arizona’s botched execution of Joseph R. Wood III Wednesday afternoon has become another dominant story in this summer of news that won’t quit, but what’s really unusual about this event is the way in which it is being covered by the television news media, and how that contrasts with the coverage of another big story this week. In case you missed the news, convicted murderer Joseph Wood was executed Wednesday, but because of the increasingly improvisational nature of lethal injection drugs, it took him two hours to die. Governor Jan Brewer (R-Ariz.) released a statement promising a “review of the process,” adding “but fuck that guy.” (That’s a slight paraphrase.)
Television news has been covering the execution by televising descriptions of it from reporters who witnessed Wood’s demise, which is odd, because the guy was laying still, in a room that was presumably well-lit, so you’d think a decent television reporter would be able to get a camera on him. This is how we handled the killing of people by our government, by either wringing our hands or cheering, but always protected from the actual images of what is being done in our name.
Well, not always. While we don’t televise executions like that of Joseph Wood, there are some killings by our government that we’re perfectly fine with showing on TV, like the NYPD’s chokehold-aided takedown of suspected untaxed cigarette seller Eric Garner. This contrast could not have been more stark than on Wednesday night’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, during which the aforementioned somber descriptions of Wood’s execution were followed by a lengthy segment on the killing of Garner, who died last week when police put him in a chokehold and tackled him on the street, then provided no medical aid to him whatsoever.
The only reason we are hearing the story of Garner is that there was a camera recording the whole incident, and unlike Wood, there is no doubt that Garner suffered as he can be heard on the tape pleading for breath. That recording, which is of police actually killing a man, played on a loop during most of O’Donnell’s segment, like wallpaper:
Why is it, then, that we are allowed to see the absolutely gut-wrenching, unjust death of Eric Garner, but not the fully-sanctioned, legal killing of Joseph Wood, a killing which, after all, we are all a party to?
There’s this line of thinking among death penalty opponents that if only people could see the executions that are being carried out in their names, the people would rise up with one voice, and demand a stop to it. I’m not so sure about that, especially if Garner’s case is any indication. We have been looking at the videotaped evidence of rampant police brutality for over 20 years now, and it hasn’t changed anything. I predict that Garner’s killing will result, at best, in police being more careful about whether anyone’s taping them than anything else. The cops know that unless there’s video, black people will not be believed, and even if there is video, it’s a 50/50 shot at best.
If executions were televised, there would be outcry, just as there is now for Eric Garner, but there would also be a huge audience for it, and if anything, demands for a better show. There would be advertising tie-ins like “Make your injection a little more lethal with Cialis,” and demand for death row inmates would quickly solve the problem of lengthy appeals and stays. Despite our unjustifiably high regard for human nature, there are just too many of us who would relish watching these people get what they deserve.
Similarly, there are far too many people who believe, or tell themselves that they believe, that people like Eric Garner or Rodney King deserve what they got, that if they weren’t guilty of this, then they were guilty of something, or would eventually be guilty of something. The truth, though, is that to many, Eric Garner’s life is within the acceptable margin of error needed to maintain terror among a group of people whom they view as a source of threats.
After all, fear of black communities has become official public policy in America.