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Jewish World Review April 18, 2001 / 25 Nissan 5761

Philip Terzian

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McVeigh on camera -- AS with any good issue, the death penalty is an endless source of speculation, rumination and emotion. The act itself divides humanity neatly into camps, and individual cases offer variations on a theme. Should an elderly woman be put to death? What about someone who is deeply contrite, or has been a model prisoner, or didn't actually pull the trigger, or is mentally retarded? Now, with Timothy McVeigh, we revisit the issue of publicizing executions.

Timothy McVeigh, who is not a very interesting person in his own right, makes an interesting case. He is scheduled to die next month, the first federal prisoner to be executed since 1963, and his death will be "witnessed" by families of victims through closed-circuit television. If he were so inclined, he could delay his date with death for years on end by appealing the sentence, or challenging the validity of his conviction; but he refuses to do so. Evidently, he welcomes his punishment as a kind of martyrdom, and the law will oblige him. To some, this constitutes an outrageous manipulation of the machinery of capital punishment; to others, it is simply good riddance.

Mr. McVeigh is a hard case for critics of capital punishment. Not only did his wanton act result in the death of 168 innocent people, including 16 children, but he seems to take a certain pride in his achievement, coolly describing the dead children as "collateral damage." Even opponents will concede that, if there is a rational case to be made for capital punishment, Timothy McVeigh is what proponents have in mind. Whether his execution will deter future mass murderers I cannot say, but people are certainly justified in demanding the ultimate punishment.

I suspect many Americans have a certain ambivalence about capital punishment. It is, of course, applied unevenly: You can be executed in Texas for bumping off your partner in crime, and you can kill two dozen people in Rhode Island without fear of the ultimate sanction. I have misgivings about granting the government the power to put people to death -- it exercises more than enough power already -- and I certainly don't relish the mechanics of the deed. But it seems reasonable to suppose that certain murders are so horrific, and certain murderers so diabolical, that execution seems appropriate. The notion that the act of detaining someone, and then putting them to death, is ugly is self-evident: The punishment fits the crime.

Until relatively recently in human history, executions were public spectacles, designed as a combination of education and entertainment. In our enlightened times, executions have been carried out in relative seclusion, seen only by prison officials and a handful of witnesses, mostly reporters. There are several reasons for this. No doubt, the gruesome aspects of hanging, shooting, decapitation, etc. were considered unseemly in time. And as belief in an afterlife has declined, execution may also be seen as extermination, rather than a speedier date with divine judgment.

Opponents have always argued that, if the state is going to kill people, it ought not to be ashamed of the fact, and executions should be publicized. They seem to believe that Americans would be horrified by the sight of extinguishing a condemned man, but I am not so sure. Public executions used to delight their audience, and human nature is not much changed. Timothy McVeigh is a case in point. I have no doubt that a crowd, outside the walls of the penitentiary, will celebrate his death, and some of the relatives of his victims wish to see McVeigh expire to bring "closure" to their mourning.

Accordingly, they petitioned Attorney General John Ashcroft, who had been disinclined to televise the execution as an affront to civil dignity.

But after meeting with the relatives, Mr. Ashcroft changed his mind, saying that he could not refuse them in the face of their evident distress. For this he has been much pilloried in the press: "Ashcroft," says Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, "is an American Taliban who retired his mind from active duty years ago."

I don't know whether the Attorney General made the right decision or not. You can argue that the potential for mischief is too great, and a solemn moment is in danger of being converted into embarrassment. I am fairly certain that, under comparable circumstances, I would not wish to see Timothy McVeigh, dead or alive. Yet if the state presumes to take the life of a criminal, how can it justify barring victims from watching the law take its course? The point about capital punishment is not that it is vengeance in action, or a suitable deterrent, or government caprice, but punishment for behavior too abhorrent to tolerate. The fact that it stirs up emotion, lends itself to exploitation, or inspires unseemly instincts, is too bad, but beside the point.

Who are we to tell these people how best to assuage their loss?

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal