SUMMARY: Decision to televise the execution of the Oklahoma City bomber is a mistake. It's not too late to correct it.

Capital punishment is one of the grimmest responsibilities our society shoulders. We agonize over the morality and legality and search in vain for alternatives. But, alas, mankind's capacity for evil compels us to maintain executions as the ultimate sanction.

But while there's no getting around the necessity of executions for the worst of the worst criminals, there's absolutely no reason why we must turn these horrible events into circuses.

Which is what the May 16 execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is beginning to resemble.

Every execution in America - they are blessedly rare - naturally sparks renewed debate about whether capital punishment is moral and constructive. This isn't a bad thing. The debate reflects our society's collective agonizing - not ambivalence; Americans endorse capital punishment by a large margin -over the issue. We wouldn't want to live in a country that executed criminals without much soul-searching.

Yet the McVeigh execution is taking a bizarre twist thanks to Attorney General John Ashcroft's decision to televise the execution live via closed-circuit television for the benefit of family members of people McVeigh killed. This is absolutely the wrong thing to do.

It isn't that hard to understand why some of the victims' families would wish to watch McVeigh die. Revenge is a natural desire. Natural, but hardly healthy. These folks need counseling, not a front-row seat for the execution. Making a quasi-public show of the execution undermines the gravity of the act. No matter how much some people might wish to view it, the government is wrong to accommodate them.

Televising the execution, even for a limited audience, adds an element of novelty that feeds the news media's compulsion to turn this into a public spectacle.

The execution should involve no more people than is absolutely necessary to accomplish the unhappy task and ensure that it's done right and with some degree of dignity.

The Justice Department erred in agreeing to televise the execution to a large crowd. It's not too late to correct that error. Putting McVeigh to death is all that's necessary to serve justice. No good will come by making some kind of a show out of it.

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