the diary thing 
TIMOTHY MCVEIGH DIED just over an hour ago. I'm sure that there are people -- the family of one of his victims or some unconnected citizens full of vicarious indignation -- who feel the death sentence was righteous and proper. I'm happy that there are people -- Christians, liberals, even militia types -- who were willing to protest McVeigh's execution. As for me, I live in a country without capital punishment, and I'm grateful for that. 

There's no question, of course, of McVeigh's guilt, and of his terrible lack of contrition. It's hard for me to feel anything but revulsion for a man that believes, after his execution for killing 168 innocent people, some of them children, for some sullen anti-government "principles", that he's still coming out ahead, by a tally of 167. McVeigh's "principles", his justifications, even his expression throughout his short, bitter time in the public eye, is that of a man fixed on an inhumanly circumscribed vision of morality, so narrowly focused that the poles of right and wrong, and the vast mitigating circumstances of context and effect, are impossible to see. It's the same kind of vision that guides his execution, as far as I can see, and does nothing to justify the law that enforces it.

From a realistic standpoint, McVeigh has gotten what he wanted -- a kind of strange vindication, a martyrdom for his "principles". It's not unreasonable to think that, eventually, his death will become a kind of rallying point for other, "principled" murderers and seething rebels. Perhaps there's a future awaiting us when Timothy McVeigh will become the Horst Wessel of another, terrible, social movement. I'd like to hope that never happens.

I found it interesting that McVeigh invited Gore Vidal to witness his execution. He had read one of Vidal's attacks on the undemocratic actions of American "imperial" government, and considered Vidal a kindred spirit. Vidal, apparently, was appalled but, while no supporter of the death penalty, recognized the opportunity to sit in the select audience at Terre Haute for what it was: the greatest scene-setting gift a journalist could ask for, the ultimate "all-access pass". I can't wait to read Vidal's piece on the whole event, provided he hung around after the delay. Like Vidal, I oppose the death penalty but, shamefully, I can't say that I wouldn't have taken the same opportunity to witness it in action, even if only to strengthen my public argument for its abolition. Thus does the existence of state-decreed death compromise us all.

THERE'S NO WAY I CAN DEFEND the incidents at Waco and Ruby Ridge, those colossally mishandled exercises of force against its citizens that inspired McVeigh to become, in his own imagination, a kind of avenging angel, striking at the heart of an evil government. There's undeniably something wrong about a government that would rather bring massive amounts of lethal force, directed from a distance, against recalcitrant and uncooperative citizens than sit and wait out a long spell of impatient, vindictive press coverage and (relatively minor) government expenditure to see the situation to a peaceful end. (It's as if U.S. policy, domestic and foreign, is so monolithic that it can only function by the principle that let it win a World War and a Cold War: Outproduce and outgun your "enemies".) There was no reason for a sniper to kill an unarmed woman or child, or for a whole compound of religious nonconformists to be burned alive. At the same time, I can't imagine how Timothy McVeigh could consider killing innocent people in a government building an appropriate response.

Unlike Ted Kaczinski, the Unabomber, I have no reason to believe that McVeigh was a particularly intelligent or articulate person, which would explain Gore Vidal, I suppose -- unable to express his opinions except through the edited and biased statements of his lawyers, or the brutal consequences of his crime, he needed someone like Vidal to carry his "principles" out of the arena of his trial and execution and out into the quality media.

If the vast majority of Republicans, and Democrats like Clinton and Lieberman, are to be believed, America is a country based on Judeo-Christian morality, a place where the separation of church and state is a mere formality, since the state has, since its founding, taken on the responsibility of the church in making its society an ongoing moral project, a steadily evolving journey toward light and righteousness. America is unique in that it believes that its righteousness -- the perfectability of democracy -- has to be prosletyzed to the world, by means of force if necessary, for the world to be "saved". 

The American empire isn't one of literally-annexed territory or economic exploitation -- certainly not compared to the empires that Europe once held in Africa or Asia -- but one where American "principles" need to be exported and implanted in every mind and constitution on the planet. At least that's the impression you get from the rhetoric of foreign policy papers or presidential speeches. The reality of empire might just be the old British model, minus the schoolroom map with its vast tracts of pink "Dominions". But here I go, sounding like Gore Vidal.

"Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out: for as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law, but the revenge of that wrong putteth the law out of office."
- Francis Bacon
Of Revenge

A topical entry.

MY OBJECTION TO THE DEATH PENALTY, ultimately, is a religious one. Stated as simply as possible, I don't think anyone but God has the right to take away human life. God might, agnostically, be interpreted as fate, in the case of illness, or bad luck, in the case of accidental death. The fact is that we all die, eventually, and that simple truth should be enough to keep anyone, even Timothy McVeigh, alive, since we're all serving our own death sentence. 

I can't think of a truth more sobering and profound than simple mortality, and for that reason alone, I would rather have seen McVeigh sit out years, decades even, alone with himself and his soul. Even if he died, unrepentant and self-righteous, in prison stripes at 95, he would have died alone, pathetic, diminished by time, as we all do. 

As a martyr for his "principles", McVeigh's whole life was ultimately defined by one, awful act. As an old man, he might have been an Albert Speer or a Rudolf Hess, either forced to articulate his guilt in front of the world, or made ridiculous by the passage of time and the judgement of history. The death penalty, ultimately, is so shallow and vindictive an expression of revenge that it's really no revenge at all.

writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
...the past
back to diary index
send me mail
the future...