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Jewish World Review June 13, 2001 / 23Sivan 5761

Philip Terzian

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Averting our eyes -- LIKE many Americans, I have been trying to put the subject of Timothy McVeigh behind me, but it hasn't been easy. Yesterday morning's newspaper was dominated by the story of his execution. The front page featured yet another portrait of McVeigh staring balefully at the camera, and a three-column photograph of grieving victim-relatives, who had watched McVeigh die on closed-circuit television, but found the experience more unsettling than comforting.

"I think I maybe expected more of a sense of closure or release or something like that," said Larry Whicher, "but it doesn't really provide as much as I thought it would." McVeigh's lawyer, Rob Nigh Jr., described his client as a "a soldier, a brother, a son and a friend," and lamented "that I could not successfully help Tim express words of reconciliation that he did not perceive to be dishonest."

Inside were more pages of reporting, more full-color pictures of survivors, camp followers, the Murrah Federal Building after the blast, massed media, shouting ministers, and a candlelight vigil by foes of capital punishment ("I'm sorry, Tim," read one sign). There was analysis by a Buffalo reporter who co-wrote a book on the case, and a terse statement from President Bush about the first federal prisoner to be put to death since 1963: "The victims ... have been given not vengeance, but justice .... [E]very living person who was hurt by the evil done in Oklahoma City can rest in the knowledge that there has been a reckoning."

Television, of course, offered no relief. The federal penitentiary at Terre Haute was surrounded by trailers, banks of microphones and huge satellite dishes, as well as high chairs to accommodate the available talking heads. Even on the morning after McVeigh's execution the tube was still saturated with victim-relative statements, film of witnesses stepping off a bus, file footage of McVeigh in his orange prison jumpsuit, and more thought and reflection from camera-ready pundits. The warden's terse statement that McVeigh was dead shared air time with views of sobbing Oklahomans. The witnesses described McVeigh's demeanor on the gurney, and the relatives agreed that lethal injection would not restore their loved ones to life.

It is difficult to reconcile solemn moments in the history of justice with the circus atmosphere that the media seem to generate in these instances. On the one hand we are admonished to turn away in horror from evil and Timothy McVeigh, but on the other we are invited to wallow in his deed. Yet the chicken and the egg are not so easy to distinguish. While I can certainly understand the conflicted attitudes of victim-relatives, and could find no reason to deny them the opportunity to watch McVeigh die, I am not so sure where coverage ends and exploitation begins. Was it really necessary for people whose close relations had been killed to stand before a bank of microphones and articulate their thoughts? And if, as certain media interlocutors seem to think, McVeigh's renown invites imitation, why are they inclined to add to the merriment?

To be sure, McVeigh's crime was unprecedented in its ferocity, and unlike certain recent famous murder cases (the Menendez brothers, Pamela Smart) there was never any ambiguity about his guilt. Nor was McVeigh the standard run-of-the-mill mass murderer. His motive was not money or sex, but politics. He did not strike in the heat of passion, but with cool deliberation. He was, by jailhouse standards, comparatively literate. He seems to have fooled at least one TV correspondent into thinking that W.E. Henley's "Invictus" -- which he copied out by hand to serve as his final statement -- had been written by McVeigh himself.

Not least, in the great tradition, he attracted the attention of a literary admirer: Perry Smith enjoyed the patronage of Truman Capote; Norman Mailer attached himself to Gary Gilmore; and McVeigh found a soulmate in Gore Vidal. Once the wellprings of fiction run dry, it would seem, the muse may be found on Death Row, of all places.

It would be nice if events such as these could be handled rather differently, and the engines of publicity reserved for better use. But dignity is not the hallmark of popular culture, and our national thirst for a tragedy with a happy ending, mixed with the scourge of celebrity culture, makes a powerful combination. There will always be an audience for traffic accidents and hangings, but why does the press feel compelled to join the mob? Spectacles such as the McVeigh execution amount to a kind of civic pornography, exalting the guilty and demeaning the innocent. The same people who recognize that the presence of cameras prompts bystanders to riot seem puzzled by the willingness of mourners to gab, spectators to cheer, and publicity hounds to seek more publicity.

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


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© 2001, The Providence Journal