This is a piece I wrote about fifteen years ago, meaning it as over-the-top social satire. I read it again a couple days ago, and it seemed in today’s world to be not as unrealistic as I meant it to be. Your call.
Let’s look at capital punishment. You know, legalized murder, as carried out by the government. The topic arises every so often, then just as often fades away with no true resolution. One reason, perhaps a determinant, is that there is no suitable machinery for carrying it out, none that meets universal approval. I have a plan which will clarify the issue, revolutionize the criminal code, and very likely make me rich.
First, let’s agree on one simple fact. Capital punishment provides a unique benefit for the criminal, and that is knowing the exact time, place, and method of his death. It is more than a benefit. It is a privilege which is beyond the reach of almost every other citizen.
We can finagle and negotiate with taxes, but not with death. A heart attack at 95 or a stray bullet at 15. A lightning bolt tomorrow or liver failure in fifty years. We are at the mercy of unpredictable and unmeasurable fate. Healthy, careful people are hit by cars racing through stop signs. Prodigal, self-ruinous people drag their wasting bodies through decades of artificial haze.
In short, we do not, can not know. But we give that enormous and otherwise-unattainable favor to those whom we, as a society, most despise. Is this the behavior of rational people?
I think not.
Let us, instead, be realistic.
Scenario: the condemned man — forgive gender specificity, as this is largely a masculine enterprise — need not, should not, be sent back to prison. Send him instead to, oh, maybe a luxury hotel in Orlando, or an apartment in San Francisco, or a desert island. There will be little difference. In fact, as you study my proposal, you may believe that the luxury hotel would be the best choice.
That’s because whatever else it is, it is the execution chamber. The distinctive quality of this one is that the condemned man has no idea how or where or when the blow will fall.
And there’s one other feature of this execution chamber, the one you all will have been waiting for.
TV cameras everywhere. Because (drum roll, please, and a few somber minor-key chords on the organ) This Is Your Death.
Yes, This Is Your Death, the new reality TV program everyone will be watching and talking about. Watching what, you ask? That case of beer in the refrigerator holds 22 normal bottles, and two whose caps are sealed with an explosive plastic. If he opens either of those, he may or may not be killed, but surely he will be severely injured. If he picks one with a normal cap, no explosion. He’ll drink happily, and perhaps discover the beer is laced with poison. Or a virulent laxative.
Wires are attached to his bathtub, leading to a box marked “High Explosives.” He may examine the box and find it empty. But if he takes a bath, he could be electrocuted. Or perhaps only discover his trick soap turns blood red when wet.
This tantalizing will make punishment far more punishing. Is there a sniper atop the next building, a cobra under the bedsheet, ground glass in the chicken Parmesan? Why destroy only the body when it would be so easy to destroy the mind and soul as well? With cameras everywhere, watching every increasingly-anguished move the condemned man makes.
Sound macabre? Bizarre? Outrageous? Well of course. But it’s no worse than any other program. It simply has the courage to complete the cycle which other programs only hint at. Face it. The American public is fascinated with reality programs. All of us have a touch of the voyeur in us. We want to peek through the keyhole at someone else’s life. (Well, you know what I mean.)
But it’s more than that. It’s the unpredictability of the outcome. The producers and the crew may know what’s coming, but the people do not. It is, in a word, theatrical. Look. Suppose you go to a theatre, where an actor comes out on stage and says, “Hamlet’s father is dead, his uncle Claudius is the villain, and Hamlet himself dies at the end. Details at eleven.”
This is drama? Come on. We want to see the whole thing played out. Show us the close-ups. Let us hear the agony. Leave us in suspense at least for a little while.
This Is Your Death will have all America watching. We will monitor the condemned man’s every move. Shudder as he opens the beer bottle, breathing a sigh of relief — or disappointment — when it does not explode, and watching — or perhaps not — as the laxative kicks in.
We’ll watch the trick soap turn blood red, and be as confused as the condemned. We’ll see him step into an elevator that plunges fifteen stories without braking. Or perhaps it drops only a few feet. This sort of thing could induce a heart attack. Suppose it does. Will he be left alone, to live or die, on his own? No, here come the paramedics. They will save him. Wait… is that an oxygen mask they’re putting over his face, or a plastic bag ?
Imagine the office pools keyed to the actual time of death, with a trifecta for picking time and place and method.
Setting up the program should be a snap. Knowledgeable and experienced people are already in place. All that’s needed is an OK from the authorities.
And considering the possibilities for advertising and tie-in merchandising, we are talking really big money here. I’m just waiting for the networks to call. My hunch is, Fox will be first.