Audience Participation Executions By An Ex-Late Night TV Host

Before you ask I want to tell you that yes, this story is by that Steve Allen. This is the story of criminal punishment in the near future. In it psi ability has been discovered and everyone has them. Individually people cannot do too much, but when they get together and focus on the same task, they can maybe move mountains. In the story thousands of people come together at Yankee Stadium in New York to punish a convicted felon. Professor Ketteridge, the felon, has been pronounced guilty of treason. The United States District Court in New York sentenced him to a “public hating,” and in a fast-track looking challenge, the United States Supreme Court affirmed. Ketteridge has been brought to the stadium, which on his day was filled to capacity. Yankee Stadium apparently is used frequently for these kinds of sentences, but common rapists and muggers bring out only 30,000 or so. Not today.

Ketteridge’s crimes are obviously known to the general public. Everyone seems to know what he has done, though in this sotry his actual crimes were never revealed. When he was brought out onto the diamond a speaker stood up and whipped the public into a frenzy of hate. For the most part the crowd complied and allowed themselves to be driven to a hateful rage, but for many it took some work.

“I ask you,” said Weltmer, “to rise. That’s it, everybody stand up. Now I want every one of you…I understand we have upwards of seventy thousand people here today…I want every single one of you to stare directly at this fiend in human form, Ketteridge. I want you to let him know by the wondrous power that lies in the strengths of your emotional reservoirs, I want you to let him know that he is a criminal, that he is worse than a murderer, that he has committed treason, that he is not loved by anyone, anywhere in the universe, and that he is, rather, despised with a vigor equal in heat to the power of the sun itself!”

I swear that sounds like a late night religious sermon, doesn’t it? It continues:

People around Traub were shaking their fists now. Their eyes were narrowed, their mouths turned down at the corners. A woman fainted.

“Come on,” shouted Weltmer. “Let’s feel it!”

Under the spell of the speaker Traub was suddenly horrified to find that his blood was racing, his heart pounding. He felt anger surging up in him. He could not believe he hated Ketteridge. But he could not deny that he hated something.

Weltmer was whipping the crowd up and asking them to direct their hatred towards Ketteridge. The power of the hate, channeled through psi abilities, killed Ketteridge slowly and painfully.

Traub stared unblinking through the binoculars at Ketteridge’s right arm as the prisoner leaped to his feet and ripped off his jacket, howling. With his left hand he gripped his right forearm and then Traub saw the flesh turning dark. First a deep red, and then a livid purple. The fingers contracted and Ketteridge whiled on a small platform like a dervish, slapping his arm against his side.

“That’s it,” Weltmer called. “You’re doing it. You’re doing it. Mind over matter! That’s it. Burn this offending flesh. Be as the avenging angels of the Lord. Smite this devil! That’s it!”

Definitely an anti-death penalty piece of literature, it works on several levels. It is definitely a critical look at the motivations and social utility of capital punishment. The crowd must be whipped up into a frenzy of hate first, so the obvious question is “is this punishment warranted?” Judges and juries that punish offenders may be charged in court with heeding the letter of the law, but what they are really doing is directing the will of the people onto the offender. Allen has given us a story here where the intermediary has been removed and the people are given a chance to enact their own punishment. Only in this case some people can’t really be bothered to hate someone for a reason that really does not affect them. Granted, others in the stadium – perhaps even most of them – seemed to feel the required rage right away, without much prodding. But remember, this is not only a festival atmosphere that is obviously likened in the minds of the viewers to a chaotic sporting event (British soccer hooliganism, anyone?), but Weltmer was invoking religious retribution, and I have a feeling that this had happened so many times in the past with other criminals that the crowd was probably conditioned to slip into rage, even if they couldn’t conjure it on their own.

Another question I was struck with is this: If you have to get into that emotional a state to kill in the first place, how can you be sure that you are doing the right thing? Rage is a strange thing. When we feel it we make choices in the heat of the moment that we probably would not ordinarily make. Personally I’ve never killed anyone, though I have had to fight to keep my hands off of other people’s windpipes in moments of anger. Not to say that action in the heat of the moment that results in the death of a convicted wrong-doer is all that bad. We have discussed the purposes of criminal punishments in the past – recall that one of them is retribution. In some cases the purpose that a judicially enacted punishment is enacting is pay-back, and in cases of treason, we sometimes kill the offenders. But I still think that a cold, sterile and clinical execution at least looks better than a frenzied mob pouring fatal amounts of hate (psychic or otherwise) on the head of a frightened, lonely man. Consider here that psychic powers are a metaphor for the will of the people. No matter what a court said, the will of the people is confused by rage and hatred. The viewers may still be able to say that they executed a punishment as ordered by a court with the proper jurisdiction to do so, but they will never be able to say that they did the right thing. Not that capital punishment is any less subject to attacks of the enlightened when it is carried out in a brightly lit room with a preacher standing nearby, but I think you get my drift here. In the end what we have here is probably nothing more then detached blood-lust, and for that reason that it is an excellent attack on the propriety of the death penalty. This is how legal-themed SF should play out.

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