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Jewish World Review June 12, 2001 / 22 Sivan, 5761

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

They didn't get to choose their last meals -- ALL day Sunday, as the hour of Monday morning's scheduled execution of Timothy McVeigh drew closer, there was considerable consternation over McVeigh's last meal.

His choice, if any, of the meal had not been publicly announced -- and prison officials knew they would have to hustle to make sure the killer of 168 men, women and children would be able to dine on exactly what he demanded.

That's customary with killers on death row -- they are invited to select their final menu, from the prison kitchen or from a restaurant. Anything they want, within reason. Ted Bundy had a medium-rare steak, eggs over easy, hash browns; Gary Gilmore had hamburgers, eggs and potatoes; John Wayne Gacy had fried chicken, french fries and fresh strawberries....

For all the talk about whether the death penalty is just, little has been said about this tradition of allowing murderers to hand-pick the contents of their last meals. As if it's not bad enough that the killers' final hours are covered on live television like the inauguration of a president, there is this custom of murderers choosing their meals as if they're at the Ritz calling room service.

There's something about the tradition that is absurd, hypocritical and insulting to the memory of the victims of murderers, and to the victims' families.

Prisoners on death row for killing people did not give their victims a choice of a last meal -- indeed, virtually all of the people who are killed by murderers do not know they are eating their last meal when they eat it. They fully expect to be having another meal -- and then someone ends their life.

That's what McVeigh did. Not one of the 168 human beings he killed knew that they had already enjoyed their last meal. McVeigh determined that they would never sit at a dinner table with their families again -- or see another sunrise, or feel the warm breeze of a spring afternoon, or hear another chord of their favorite music.

Murderers, by their own choice, rob their victims of everything. Last meal? The murderers decide that their victims have already had their last meals.

So why does society twist itself into such contortions to allow the killers to select their final menus? Is it some kind of reward?

And if so, for what? There are many people in this country who routinely go hungry -- and who certainly are not in a position to demand any meal that they choose. The family members of murder victims are aware every morning and every night that they will never be able to share a meal with the people they loved -- the people who were killed by the prisoners on death row. What an affront -- to in any way beyond the basics cater to people who have committed crimes this terrible.

Which brings us to the hypocrisy.

By providing killers with their custom-choice of a last meal (paid for with your taxes), is society trying to apologize for what it is about to do -- is society saying that, even though we are about to execute you, we want to show you that we are sorry for what we're making you go through?

If that is the case, it's nonsense. Capital punishment is society's ultimate statement of abhorrence for crimes that are the ultimate violation of humanity. Once society has somberly agreed that such a punishment is justified under the law, it is ridiculous to then try to soften the moment by telling the killer to choose anything he wants to dine on. This trivializes what is transpiring. Either society means what it says, or it doesn't -- and if it means that a prisoner has done something so appalling that he must die for it, then the choose-any-meal-you-desire tradition has no logic. It is frivolous. It demeans the seriousness of what is taking place.

The people who deserved the choice of a last meal are no longer alive. Their killers robbed them of that. In McVeigh's case, 168 people sat down for a meal six years ago having no idea that they would never have a chance to sit down for another one. A choice? He robbed them of every choice they might ever have had. And he didn't even know them.

McVeigh was sentenced to die for a reason -- 168 of them. It's time to do away with the dead-wrong symbolism of the choose-your-final-menu tradition. Even opponents of the death penalty ought to agree with that. Either we mean what we are doing or we don't. And if we mean it, we ought to act like it.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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