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AL MARTINEZ

Turning Death Into a Cyber Show

April 23, 2001|AL MARTINEZ

Among images that flutter like crows on the edges of my memory are vivid pictures of three people dying in the gas chamber at San Quentin.

I can see their faces, I can see their eyes and I can see the last twitches of their bodies as they breathe in the hydrocyanic gas. Two die together, one dies alone.

The memory returned the other night as I watched a chillingly accurate portrayal of a gas chamber execution in the televised rerun of a movie called "Fallen."

It left me ill at ease, trying to shake off the scene.

Then that same evening, a newscast reported that an online organization called Entertainment Network Inc. was seeking permission to Webcast live the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, scheduled for May 16.

Memory, fiction and reality collided with an impact that has left me wondering where it will all end.

ENI, a Florida company, had previously crawled to prominence with VoyeurDorm.com, which allowed us to watch the 24-hour activities of female college students in their dormitory. And now it wanted to offer real death as entertainment on the World Wide Web for $1.95.

A federal judge turned down the request, brushing aside ENI's contention that it had a 1st Amendment right to document for public consumption the last moments of a hideous mass killer. The company promised to appeal the ruling.

That millions would watch the presentation, there is little doubt. But I feel that if "entertainment" is ENI's aim, the production needs help. Allow me.

*

To simply view a man dying on a table in a clinical environment lacks audience appeal. Special effects have given us death in such vivid and entertaining combinations that to attract attention, ritual death needs embellishment.

How many of us, for instance, have not been thrilled and delighted at the escalating number of explosions, fires, shootings, stabbings, throat-slashings, head-bashings and crushings that movies, television and video games have offered in recent years?

The vivid methods of other media depicting death in its many exciting forms dwarf the efforts of ENI in its own more modest quest for mass appeal. A little "splash" is needed for the "Timothy McVeigh Special."

I am not suggesting cartoon images. The situation is much more serious than that. But a beautiful young woman dressed in an appropriately somber outfit, only slightly revealing, would be an eye-catching way to open the show . . . er, I mean the presentation.

To underscore the seriousness of the event, she would introduce the Webcast in a hushed and restrained manner, backed, perhaps, with a score by Bobby Dylan. Something folk-tuney about regret and last days. Think, "Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. . . ."

For the actual killing, we would need a male voice-over that would resonate with gloom and authority. Charlton Heston? Good choice.

But something is still missing. Once the execution is complete, a quiet fade-out isn't enough. So we end big. We blow him up. Bah-room! The End.

*

Garish? Of course. Outlandish? Sure. Cruel? You bet. But that's what sells, baby. That's "reality" entertainment. That's better than "Survivor" and "Temptation Island" combined. It's larger than life . . . even larger than death.

ENI makes an effort to temper its quest by offering software controls that parents can use to keep kids from viewing McVeigh's last moments. The $1.95 charge per customer would be donated to charities established for the 168 people killed in the Oklahoma City bombing six years ago. The notoriety, of course, would belong to ENI.

This isn't the first company that has demanded the right to record executions. Newspapers and television stations have fought for years without success to film a condemned person's final moments, in whatever manner the moment was offered.

Their purpose, they have argued, was to uphold the spirit of the 1st Amendment. Their purpose, they said, was to reveal the "cruel and unusual" nature of capital punishment. I wanted to ask ENI Chief Executive David Marshlack what his purpose was. My phone calls went unreturned.

But we know what it's all about. It's show biz, folks. It's the gradual devolvement of a violence-soaked culture to its baser instincts. It's the animal growling within us. It's a fascination with cruelty that is never abated.

It's the children of a new age, splashing in blood.

So why not allow the new medium, the relentless eye of cyberspace, to give us a look-see at a bad guy dying? Why not dress it up? Why not funeral drums and Bobby Dylan? Why not death-dot-com?

Why not, I ask with tears for our culture. . . . Why not?

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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