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Jewish World Review May 7, 2001 / 14 Iyar, 5761

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Killing McVeigh will wound us all -- IF I were in charge of the universe, this is how Timothy McVeigh would die:

It's 40 years from now. He's in his early 70s and still a federal prisoner. He's just finished writing one more letter in his long correspondence -- begun tentatively in 2005 -- with family members of the people he killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

This particular letter ends the way a lot of them have ended in recent years: "Thank G-d I was allowed to live and was given a chance to tell you again and again how sorry I am." He seals the letter -- and drops dead of a heart attack.

I understand, of course, that this is fantasy -- historical hallucination, if you will -- on several counts.

First, McVeigh seems sure to be executed by lethal injection as scheduled on May 16 in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. He wants it. Many of the victims' families seem to want it. The government wants it. Only something unexpected could prevent it.

Second, even if McVeigh were allowed to live, spend the rest of his life in prison and die of natural causes, he probably would not repent, probably would not grasp the enormity of the evil he committed in killing 168 people, probably would continue to imagine himself as a militaristic and patriotic hero of the ultra-right. What a malevolent fool.

After all, McVeigh is by now so far off the track of rationality that it's hard to see how he could ever find any sense of balance or perspective about his life and its primal murderousness -- no matter how long he was allowed to live. A change in him would take a miracle.

I believe in miracles, large and small. I don't expect them, don't depend on them to solve my problems, don't think I deserve them, but they come, large and small.

The other night I attended worship services with friends at a Reform Jewish congregation, and I was smitten -- and convicted -- by this phrase in the prayer book the congregation uses: "We walk sightless among miracles."

I don't mean to overuse and thereby devalue the term, but I find miracles almost everywhere. In this, I stand with Walt Whitman, who once wrote: "To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,/Every cubic inch of space is a miracle."

That the world exists at all, that there's love in it, that there's creativity, beauty, gravity, music, sorrow -- all miracles.

So I never would foreclose the possibility that -- given world enough and time -- Timothy McVeigh would experience a miracle of insight and come to something like a sense of guilt, something like a feeling of remorse.

And if that miraculous day ever came, McVeigh might well grow to understand that he would be required to express culpability and repentance to the people whose lives he wounded so profoundly by his poisonous deed.

But McVeigh's execution will foreclose any such remote possibility. Killing him will guarantee that no miracle of penitence can ever happen to him.

Beyond that, of course, the current plans to execute McVeigh will send a much different message -- state-sponsored death will be applauded and affirmed as public entertainment.

Are you aware that among the several McVeigh-related T-shirts now for sale near the execution site is one that says: "Terre Haute Extra Hangin' Time, Die!, Die!, Die!"? Another talks of "Hoosier Hospitality." We are given now not bread and circuses but death and circuses. And death as circus. What a sick moment in our history.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, caving in to this kind of wretched excess, has authorized closed-circuit TV of the execution for survivors and family members of the victims.

I bet a pirated video tape will be on the Internet within days of the event. By Father's Day, children on home computers will be watching Timothy McVeigh die. All over America people will bookmark the Web site so, as they do with their favorite pornography sites, they can return to it again and again and be thrilled by this government-created snuff film.

We've lost our way. Like lava flow from an exploding volcano, the sins of Timothy McVeigh are spreading through our fetid culture, staining all of us with iniquity, with primordial perversity.

The one thing that could have been done to stop this disgrace -- keep him forever in prison -- has been rejected. McVeigh sowed the wind. We are about to reap the whirlwind.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2001. All rights reserved