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

Tony Snow

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McVeigh has won -- TIMOTHY McVeigh has managed, through dint of his own delusion, to sucker a large portion of the American press corps into supplying the notoriety he craves.

Although he claims to abjure the spotlight, the mass murderer has managed to become the most sought-after interview in the land. He accomplished this feat by dispatching missives to a select few: the Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, Rita Cosby of Fox News, and Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck, authors of "American Terrorist."

Of course, nothing titillates as reliably as denial, so dozens of ambitious journalists, stung at having failed to score the original scoop, are penning entreaties to Slaughter Boy, begging him to share a morsel of his notoriety and fame.

McVeigh understands the symbiosis of crime and news, of misery and news, of death and news. He appreciates the public's lurid interest in the inner workings of sick men's minds. He has leveraged both to create a unique personal soapbox -- a platform for making crazy theories sound plausible and his murderous behavior appear rational.

McVeigh is a classic Internet goofball, intoxicated by his discontent, eager to recategorize hatred as vengeful virtue. Get a load of his tortured justifications for murdering strangers: He says the federal government is no better than the Beijing bullies who flattened protesters in Tienamen Square -- and that his victims deserved their fates because they worked for Uncle Sam.

He likens the childcare center at the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City to Saddam Hussein's use of children as human shields and defends Ramsi Yusef, who masterminded the bombing of the World Trade Center.

For some reason, he believes he has authority to right the wrongs that annoy him: In his letter to Fox News, he wrote: "I waited two years from 'Waco' for non-violent 'checks and balances' built into our system to correct the abuse of power we were seeing in federal actions against citizens. ..."

Later, he added, "I considered, among other things, a campaign of individual assassination, with 'eligible' targets to include: Federal Judge Walter Smith (Waco trial); Lon Horiuchi (FBI sniper at Ruby Ridge); and Janet Reno (making her accept 'full responsibility' in deed, not just word.)"

And to wrap it all up, he used military jargon as a way of burnishing his crime. Here's the explanation of why he describes dead children as collateral damage: "As an American news 'junkie,' and a Gulf War veteran, where do they think I learned that? (It sure as hell wasn't Osami (sic) bin Laden!)"

Hanna Arendt observed about the Holocaust that evil prevails not in great chilling leaps, but through tiny, banal events that slowly deaden our moral senses. One cannot read McVeigh's prison writings without getting the sense that, although he had the wits to pull off a massive terrorist operation, he is a banal man, with little of interest to say.

Heedless, though, the press floods toward him, anticipating the first federal execution in more than three decades. Last week, National Public Radio even decided to use McVeigh's looming lethal injection as an excuse to broadcast old audiotapes of executions in Georgia's death chamber.

If the taxpayer-financed network wanted to stir up public horror about capital punishment, it failed. It performed a service akin to publicizing a Kevorkian murder. It made execution seem quiet, clinical, matter-of-fact. In so doing, it contributed to the most disturbing trend of the age -- the ritual and regular cheapening of life.

NPR isn't alone in capitalizing on McVeigh: All of us in the journalism biz are at it -- seeking ways to stimulate interest, shock, horror, excitement, censure, praise: ratings. The U.S. Department of Justice, in a wonderfully wrought exercise in irony, has exploited the scramble by devising a journalistic version of Survivor: It will release a list of approved TV witnesses only 45 minutes before the execution and require journalists from all the nation's broadcast networks to select from their number just two people to serve as eyewitnesses for the rest.

Such is the circus McVeigh has wrought. Tellingly, he has made it both difficult and easy for those of us who oppose the death penalty: Difficult, because he's an unrepentant killer, who exudes bravado for his butchery. Easy, because he has lured others into becoming as insensitive and self-absorbed as he -- and that his killing enables him to glory in a year's worth of stardom, rather than having to wallow in a lifetime's worth of anonymity and scorn.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate