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Jewish World Review June 20, 2001 / 30 Sivan, 5761

Paul Campos

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McVeigh fired our dark joy of vengeance -- ONE of the more disturbing aspects of the execution of Timothy McVeigh was the orgy of hatred and vengefulness in which many in the media indulged. Here, for example, are the words of a Denver columnist, written three days before the execution: "We will be rid of this evil human being . . . this ungrateful, hateful, paranoid killer . . . this unremorseful creep."

This quote is taken from an opinion column, but much of the straight news coverage of the execution clearly reflected similar sentiments. The bulk of that coverage treated McVeigh's ambiguous demeanor during the execution itself (he said nothing, and made no gesture other than a nod of acknowledgment to the assembled witnesses) as unambiguous evidence of his lack of any remorse for his terrible crimes.

Indeed, given how little coverage there was of the fact, most Americans probably remain unaware that McVeigh asked for (and received) the last rites of the Catholic church minutes before he was put to death. That particular ritual requires the participant to genuinely repent for all the evil he has done, and to humbly beseech God's forgiveness.

Whether McVeigh genuinely repented must remain a mystery, but it might be worth reminding those Americans who claim allegiance to the Christian faith that it is one of the most solemn duties of the believer to pray for the souls of those most in need of such intercession. To put it as bluntly as possible, there is to my knowledge no Christian sect that excludes even the likes of McVeigh from the fundamental formula, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

The natural response to all this is to ask, "How would you feel if your child had died in the Oklahoma City bomb blast?" I believe I can answer that question with some confidence: I would be utterly unable to forgive McVeigh, and would only regret that his death had been so easy.

It would be the height of presumption for someone who has not lost a loved one to McVeigh's crime to exhort those who have toward acts of forgiveness of which he knows he himself is incapable. But these comments are not directed to those who must live with the genuine grief, profound as that must be, unleashed by McVeigh's crime.

Rather, they are directed at those who indulge in the pleasures of hatred and revenge, even though they themselves loved no one who died at McVeigh's hands. The Germans, perhaps not surprisingly, have a specific word for this emotion: Schadenfreude -- literally, "shameful joy." And it is a shameful emotion -- although one that ought to be easy to forgive when it wells up in the hearts of those who have actually suffered at the hands of a killer like McVeigh.

I have no doubt that Timothy McVeigh deserved to die for his crimes. But I have serious doubts whether the fact that he deserved what he got is a sufficient justification for inflicting a punishment that, to allude to another Catholic concept, can itself far too easily become an occasion for sin. If putting a man to death tempts us to protect ourselves from the inevitable horror of the proceeding by transforming the prisoner from a human being into an utterly unredeemable monster, then does not the punishment itself become a kind of continuation of the damage wreaked by the crime?

Timothy McVeigh, after all, became capable of committing mass murder on the day that he stopped thinking of government employees as human beings, and began to consider them as nothing more than appropriate targets for his hatred and rage. "He who fights monsters," said the philosopher Nietzsche, "risks becoming a monster himself." That so many looked into McVeigh's face and saw nothing but a monster might, in the end, have been his most successful act of revenge.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Paul Campos