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Opinion Column
For the week of May 16 through May 22, 2001

A muddy sense of justice in McVeigh case

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

To say that closure is what we seek and what we get is not only inaccurate but an oversimplification of the complex experience survivors face.

Early this morning Timothy McVeigh was to have been the first federal prisoner executed in 38 years. As it turns out, the execution was delayed 30 days, because the FBI failed to turn over thousands of documents to McVeigh’s attorneys during the discovery phase of the trial. Though few believe the blunder will set McVeigh free, such ineptitude in a high profile case almost defies belief. It is also a sobering reminder that our justice system is an extremely blunt tool, especially when it comes to capital cases.

On April 19, 1995, McVeigh, 33, with help from Terry Nichols, blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla. He killed 168 people, including 19 children, who McVeigh referred to in an interview with two reporters from The Buffalo News as "collateral damage." It is a curious phrase, one he no doubt picked up as a decorated soldier in Desert Storm, the Persian Gulf war. Generals Schwarzkopf and Powell used the phrase ad nauseum in press conferences.

McVeigh is an easy guy to hate. Not only did he indiscriminately kill 168 people and injure thousands, he did so with apparently no remorse—a fact that was often cited as justification for having him put to death.

For a number of reasons, however, I would much rather see McVeigh and every other killer rot in prison than have the state, and therefore, every man, woman and child in this country carry the responsibility of having them killed. Regardless of whether we use chemicals, guillotine, noose or firing squad, and regardless of whether it is carried out behind closed doors or not, the cold fact remains we are killing a person.

As much as I can understand the impulse to kill someone like McVeigh, I still can’t get around the question: how does one explain the practice of capital punishment to a 4-year-old? As any parent knows, children have a sharp eye for hypocrisy. Yes, it’s the ultimate transgression to kill, but if the state does it quietly with a syringe, it’s okay?

Killing in the name of the state does remove the problem of Timothy McVeigh, but it also condones killing as a means to an end. McVeigh has said he carried out the bombing as a retaliation for the BATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, in which 80 people died, including children. It, too, was his means to an end. Who knows who is to blame for Waco, but the sum result is McVeigh responded to killing with his own brand of a raid and killing. Now, the state answers McVeigh’s killing with their own. To respond to our most heinous crime with the same act of taking life seems somewhat absurd.

The question I keep bumping into is: What are we trying to achieve with capital punishment, anyway?

One answer repeatedly voiced by Attorney General John Ashcroft is that it offers "closure" to this sad episode.

Closure, I believe, is a fallacy. Claiming that executing McVeigh provides closure belittles the experience of those who suffer the loss. The loss of a loved-one’s life, whether through murder, accident, disease or old age is a life altering experience. Grief comes and goes over a lifetime of the survivors. The experience lingers, slides in and out of our consciousness—for better of worse for all of our days. It does not end at the funeral or, in this case at the execution. We cry, rage, learn from and contemplate death for our entire lives. To say that closure is what we seek and what we get is not only inaccurate but an oversimplification of the complex experience survivors face.

Some argue that we invoke the death penalty for reasons of vengeance. From the perspective of the victims’ families, it seems perfectly understandable to want to kill in anger. I imagine I’d feel the same anger, but perhaps that is not the place of the state. The state in its entirety is emotionally divorced from the case, as it should be. This isn’t the Wild West or a dirty little civilization from the Middle Ages that is rooted in "eye for an eye" justice. Ours is a criminal justice system based on meting out punishment in a rational, emotionless way.

Are we punishing to appease the survivors? If so, then it becomes a political event, with the benefactors being the attorneys general of the world—those who get the tag, "tough on crime."

Are we punishing to remove the threat? Killing him will certainly do that, but then so will a long life in prison without the possibility of parole.

If we are looking for severity of punishment, it would seem life in prison without parole is far worse than quick, painless death. A sense of loss, in McVeigh’s case that of freedom, would be felt every day of his life, just as the victims’ families will feel, regardless of whether McVeigh is dead or alive.

In sum, it seems that the focus of capital punishment is fuzzy at best. Basically, I think it continues because it is an easy way to make a problem go away—though even that is questionable .

Traditionally, punishment in the form of prison was to remove and rehabilitate—remove the threat from society and save the soul.

Pope John Paul II addressed the issue succinctly in a recent speech: "I hope still that we reach the point where capital punishment is renounced, given that nations today have other means of efficiently repressing crime without definitely taking away the possibility of self-redemption."

It seems to me that to be true to our moral values, we must acknowledge life in all of its ugly vagaries and leave the extinction of it to other forces. The question of redemption can be resolved by the transgressor in a windowless prison cell.


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