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Faceoff: Watching McVeigh Die

Friday, 13 April 2001 12:00 AM

Today: Is it proper for the families of those killed in the Murrah building blast to be allowed to watch the bomber die?

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh's execution will be shown by a remote broadcast to more than 200 survivors and victims' relatives. Attorney General John Ashcroft, in announcing this decision, said the broadcast may help the group "close this chapter on their lives." The telecast will not be taped. Instead it will be, as Ashcroft put it, "instantaneous and contemporaneous," leaving no permanent record. (McVeigh himself proposed televising the execution to the entire nation, a request that was rejected.)

While no one would wish to deny a feeling of finality to the families of victims of this horrific crime, the idea that witnessing executions is a good idea because it serves a therapeutic purpose and provides "closure" for victims and families - and communities and nations - needs to be carefully examined.

It's rather surprising to find conservatives, who usually attack the "therapeutic society," finally find therapy they approve of. So what if the therapy is watching someone be killed?

McVeigh is a "poster child" for executions. Of course, he is participating in the spectacle of his own will. He wants to die, and he wants to die publicly. In that way he's like Gary Gilmore. Many murderers are just extroverted suicides (which is why the "preventive" theory of executions has so little effect). The Rev. Carroll Pickett, a former chaplain to Texas death row inmates, said McVeigh "wants the show. He's asked for it and he got it."

There's something unsavory about the whole business. If deterrence is the argument, public executions make perfect sense. Of course, societies with public executions have more murders, not less. Before the reforms of Sir Robert Peel (after whom the English "Bobbies" were named), a great array of offenses had the death penalty in England, including pickpocketing.

Pickpockets soon found that public executions were the best occasion for their activity.

If vengeance is the goal, why have the state carry out the execution at all?

For most of human history, the members of the aggrieved family were given the right to kill the killer. Why not throw McVeigh into a room with the 250 family members who want to see him die, and let them kill him? That would surely be a cathartic experience, if that's what is needed.

And if the cathartic experience of watching McVeigh be killed is good for members of the victim's families, why shouldn't it be good for the entire population?

The anti-death penalty New York Times editorial page wrote: "By publicly televising Mr. McVeigh's execution, broadcasters would be showing the very kind of act - the taking of a human life - for which Mr. McVeigh is being executed. The telecast would appeal to the basest instincts of the viewing public, and would inevitably coarsen our society."

The government stopped conducting public executions in the early 20th century for much the same reason that it will use lethal injections rather than more brutal technologies to kill Timothy McVeigh - to reinforce the distinction between a lynching and a soberly considered act of duly authorized justice.

But it's exactly the flavor of a lynching rather than of justice which is added when cathartic vengeance is considered to be a crucial role in an execution. On the other hand, if conservatives believe in cathartic vengeance, and they believe in the theory of deterrence, they aren't putting their beliefs into practice - yet

The logic of McVeigh execution, a spectacular suicide being paid for by the public and watched by hundreds of relatives of the victims, is a step toward making these events open to the entire public.

And that's a road we shouldn't be traveling on.

If Timothy McVeigh were dying in the electric chair rather than by lethal injection, he would be the only one in the room sitting down. Otherwise, it would be standing room only.

Many of the families of those who are martyrs to McVeigh's nonsensical paranoia want to see him die for his crime. Not just to know that he did, but to see it. This is not blood lust so much as it is a desire for closure. They have a legitimate need to know that their nightmare is, as much as it ever can be, over.

Certainly, there is a deterrent aspect to McVeigh's end. As Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, "Executions are intended to draw spectators. If they do not draw spectators, they don't answer their purpose," which is to convey, through the taking of a life judged guilty, to show the value that is placed on life.

While that may sound like an inherent contradiction, it is most assuredly not. McVeigh chose to wipe dozens of people, all of them innocent, off the face of the planet as a result of his deluded view of justice. He was not engaged in open rebellion against tyranny; he was a sneak, trying to make a statement while escaping responsibility for his crime.

Since McVeigh thought it necessary to couch his multiple murders in the language of patriots, note the difference between him and John Hancock, who signed a document attesting to the American rebellion against Britain in type so large that "fat old George in England could read it without his glasses."

McVeigh wants to die because he cannot bear the thought of rotting in prison, deprived of his liberty. In this, the government is obliging him, but not cheerfully. The taking of a life is serious business. So serious in fact that it was Attorney General John Ashcroft, with a heavy heart, who finally had to give approval to the viewing of the execution by the families of the victims.

While Ashcroft has cautioned the media to avoid giving McVeigh a public platform in his final days - something on which, to this point, they have obliged - we all are nonetheless aware of the pending event. And we are heartened by it. Again, this is not because of blood lust, but because it fulfills our innate sense of justice.

Who can ignore their feelings when thinking of the small children in the Murrah building's day care center on that fateful day? Happily at play in one moment, crushed under piles of rubble the next. If ever there was a criminal who deserved to die for his deed, it is McVeigh.

That the families want to see it is a simple thing, and it has been handled appropriately. To the larger point, we must not shrink from what the nation's decision to execute McVeigh says about us. We are not, as some would have it be seen, barbarians. We demand justice be done to avenge the taking of dozens of innocent lives.

As Dr. Johnson also said, "It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time." How we live, and the respect we give to innocent life, is the larger issue that we must all now address.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International.

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Today: Is it proper for the families of those killed in the Murrah building blast to be allowed to watch the bomber die? Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh's execution will be shown by a remote broadcast to more than 200 survivors and victims' relatives. Attorney...
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2001-00-13
Friday, 13 April 2001 12:00 AM
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