Timothy McVeigh`s Execution: Justice As Soap Opera…

The social event of the year
seems to be the impending execution of Oklahoma City
bomber Timothy McVeigh on May 16. Since McVeigh has
admitted his guilt and abandoned his claims to
further legal appeals that might have kept him alive
for several more years, there need be no worries
about what DNA evidence could show 50 years from now
or the constitutional niceties of dispatching him so
quickly, a mere six years after his act of terror.
Therefore, everyone can sit back and enjoy the show
without guilt.

"Everyone" now
includes some 250 privileged spectators who happen
to be victims of the Oklahoma City blast or
relatives of those murdered by it whom Attorney
General John Ashcroft, as an act of mercy and
wisdom, is allowing to watch the fun close up on closed
circuit television.
"I am going to do what
I can to accommodate the needs of these
families," Mr. Ashcroft gravely intoned last
. "This is the first of the executions
that the United States will have undertaken in this
century and the first during the last 37 or so
years. What we do here will obviously shape the
process in some measure … and we have to be
attentive to that."

It`s touching that Mr. Ashcroft
is so deeply sensitive to the historic significance
of the occasion. From the solemn way he talks about
it, you`d think holding the first federal execution
of the new century was something like dedicating a
battlefield memorial. But what is even more touching
is his alertness to the "needs" of those
slobbering to watch McVeigh die.

Of course, no one has any
"need" to watch the execution at all, and
the federal government does none of us a good turn
by permitting something very much like a public
execution to take place. It`s one thing, and
entirely proper, for the victims and relatives of
the victims to want and demand McVeigh`s execution.
It`s quite another for them to insist on watching it
themselves. The first is a matter of justice and
morally rooted retribution. The second is merely
catering to revenge, anger and hatred. As attorney
general, Mr. Ashcroft should know better than to
surrender to such passions, let alone insinuate that
they will be models for other executions in the

In a famous essay
against capital punishment, French philosopher
Albert Camus told the story of his father, who went
to see the execution of a notorious criminal in a
Paris prison back in the days when murderers were
dispatched on the guillotine. His father returned
home sick at his stomach, from which Camus inferred
that there is something about killing a human being
that normal men find revolting. Camus` point is well
taken, though it doesn`t follow from it, as he
claimed, that the death penalty should be abolished.

It doesn`t follow because the
same nauseous reaction occurs when normal men watch
other gruesome but morally justifiable and socially
necessary proceedings. First year medical students
often faint when they watch their first autopsy on a
human corpse, but it doesn`t follow that autopsies
or surgical operations should be banned. Most normal
people would lose their breakfasts if they walked
through a slaughterhouse, but only animal rights
nuts would infer from the experience that killing
animals for food and clothing should be outlawed.

Nevertheless, Camus` point
remains valid. Because an act is both just and
necessary doesn`t mean it should be carried out in
public or that normal men should be encouraged to
watch it and either suppress their natural responses
to it or be tempted to feel that those responses are
somehow inappropriate. When the 250 witnesses to
McVeigh`s lift­-off get a real gander of death
deliberately administered, that`s exactly how they
will tend to react to it.

The point here is not the cliché
of death penalty opponents that killing McVeigh
won`t bring back the victims he murdered. The point
is that allowing some people to watch McVeigh be
killed will do nothing to enhance or confirm the
justness of his death, will certainly cheapen it and
may serve to subvert the purpose of other deserved
executions in the future.

It`s tempting to say–and
probably it is widely believed–that no criminal in
this country deserves death more than Timothy
McVeigh, but that`s not true. The prisons are full
of men who deserve death at least as much as McVeigh
and maybe more so. But few of them are executed,
because they are seldom hated as much as McVeigh and
the authorities who are supposed to execute them
lack the moral courage to carry out what justice and
law demand. In the case of McVeigh, these same
authorities have managed to turn what should have
been a solemn act of law and justice into something
resembling an afternoon soap opera. 


April 17,