Death-Penalty Taboos

WITH 75 PERCENT OF Americans supporting the death penalty, the sentencing of Timothy McVeigh might have been expected to soothe the debate. But passion over the issue seems to be packing as much voltage as ever.

When The Arizona Republic first published Steve Benson's cartoon zinging death-penalty supporters (above), there was little comment. Then Spokane, Wash.'s Spokesman-Review published the drawing when a firefighter's convention happened to be in town, and the story began prairie-firing across the Net, talk radio and TV. By last Friday, Benson was on the ""Today'' show with the uncomfortable duty of sharing the camera with the baby's mother, who demanded his apology for defiling a tragic image. Benson didn't offer one, but his newspaper did, after receiving more than 1,000 angry calls.

The death penalty also lay behind a bizarre proposal from veteran TV broadcaster Mike Wallace, who suggested that ""60 Minutes'' should air an onscene account of McVeigh's execution. ""If it's a public policy to take an individual's life, why in the world shouldn't the American public be allowed to see it?'' he demanded. ""60 Minutes'' executive producer Don Hewitt nixed the idea with the phrase ""over my dead body.'' Hewitt added, ""I don't see any point except shocking people.''

A legitimate editorial disagreement, then, between two CBS News warhorses. But behind it lies a dispute about public policy: Wallace is against the death penalty, Hewitt isn't. It's often the death-penalty advocates who are opposed to what's been called ""Live at Five, Styx at Six.'' They're afraid that scenes of dead men walking would awaken sympathy for the condemned.

The cartoonist Benson, a conservative whose opposition to the death penalty is consistent with his belief in the ""sanctity of life'' regarding abortion, says his drawing isn't to be taken literally. He was merely making a statement about the death penalty. Which, one could argue, is what everybody else is doing, too.