Conspiracy or not, a judge ruled last week that Timothy McVeigh
would die by lethal injection today. As the assistant police
chief in Terre Haute, Indiana, said, 'We're in execution mode
This is the first U.S. federal execution since 1963 and,
to borrow a vaudevillian phrase, "What an execution it
will be!" Banking that no higher court would halt it,
hucksters scrambled to reassemble their wares - buttons and
other trinkets to be flogged and new T-shirts to be printed.
The T-shirt, which earlier bore a picture of a syringe and
the words: "Hoosier Hospitality. McVeigh / Terre Haute
/ May 16, 2001, Final Justice," features a new date.
Computer hackers frantically sought ways to access the closed-circuit
broadcast of the killing, set up for survivors of the Oklahoma
bombing and relatives of those who died. Grocers in the quiet
Midwest town placed fresh orders for sandwiches to feed the
anticipated crowd. Officials designated two parks for expected
protesters: One for those applauding the execution and the
other, a few blocks away, for those opposing it.
McVeigh's was a heinous crime that left 168 dead, including
19 children he dismissed as "collateral damage."
Those who survived talk of limbs chopped off and other horrors;
while those severely brain injured still lie helpless, unable
even to tell their stories. This is victim impact of such
a magnitude that the most severe punishment is clearly, unarguably
That's what has made the controversy about the nature of
McVeigh's punishment, along with the hullabaloo over who should
be allowed to watch, so intriguing. Many of the survivors,
victims' relatives and friends and those declared "secondary
victims" petitioned U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft
for their right to witness the execution. Having been thoroughly
immersed in the doctrine of the grief counsellors who have
swarmed around Oklahoma City since the explosion five years
ago, they contended that only by watching could they achieve
healing of their emotional pain.
Ashcroft, having accepted the popular notion of finding "closure,"
agreed to provide a private screening to this select audience.
Unhappy with this limitation, Entertainment Network sought
court permission to publicly broadcast the execution, but
the request was turned down. So, the public must rely on hackers.
Why is there all this interest in watching a man be put
to death? How can it benefit anyone? For the survivors and
relatives, what can it accomplish?
While "closure" may be their announced motive,
the private reason, I suspect, is raw vengeance. And, while
Homer wrote that vengeance is "sweeter than honey,"
I doubt that will be in this case. What would they feel if,
as he is still very likely to do, McVeigh claims "victory
at 168 to 1," and quotes Henley's powerful lines: "I
am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul"?
Would they be satisfied to watch him then drift into a tidy,
bloodless death? The experience might very well turn out too
bitter to swallow.
And what about the rest of us? What would we get out of watching?
Likely, the answer depends on where we stand on the death
penalty and on our attitude about victim rights. During McVeigh's
trial, many of the victims, understandably, felt he should
pay with his life. During the sentencing phase, a Time/ CNN
poll indicated that 78 per cent of Americans thought he should
die. On the first day, when a honk in front of the courthouse
was meant to signal that he should "fry," more than
24,000 citizens honked their horns. One man even displayed
a billboard carrying a caricature of McVeigh with dynamite
sticks wedged into his ears and mouth, hands holding lit matches
and the caption: "Let Us Have Him."
With this thirst for a lynching, McVeigh's quiet execution
is unlikely to be quenching. Decapitation, hanging, even the
old electric chair would, I reckon, be more satisfying for
those who cry for blood. But people such as Bud Welch, who,
though his daughter died in the bombing, opposes the death
penalty, are likely to react quite differently. Welch admits
that initially he had a strong urge for retribution, but then
realized that killing McVeigh would bring no emotional relief.
Having met with McVeigh's father, he thinks that killing
another man's child is wrong, no matter what. And even before
the death sentence was rendered, Archbishop Charles Chaput
was trying to get this point across. "Killing the guilty
is wrong ... while it may satisfy society's anger for a while,
it cannot release the murder victim's loved ones from their
Perhaps we should not only be allowed, but required, to watch
the execution. Whether it heals or hurts, satisfies or sickens,
we ought to witness this extreme act of the state on behalf
of its citizens, for then we would have knowledge of what
we speak. Jim Willett has done just that. As the warden at
Huntsville Prison, he is the overseer of all Texas executions.
Last year, he witnessed 50. In an interview with National
Public Radio, he revealed that "there are times when
I'm standing there, watching those fluids start to flow, wondering
if what we are doing is right. It's something I'll think about
for the rest of my life."
If we were all obliged to watch McVeigh's execution, we might
find ourselves also asking if it is "right." But
in this era in which personal feelings so often have primacy
over moral principles, it seems disturbingly possible that
the question would be swept aside by the cry for blood.