Losing our innocence;
A televised execution would not be sweet "revenge"

June 11, 2001


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 again."

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 justified.

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 sorrow."

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.


by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,
The Ottawa Citizen


@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,