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Murdering Timothy McVeigh makes us the same as him

Friday, June 08, 2001

A TV news story last month examined Timothy McVeigh's belief that U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch would grant his bid for a stay of execution. One detail has lingered on: Anticipating a long, hot summer on death row in Terre Haute, the Oklahoma City bomber bought a fan to cool his cell.

It was a rare departure from the image of soldierly stoicism he's carefully cultivated since passing from obscurity into murderous notoriety six years ago.

Judge Matsch refused to grant the stay of execution that McVeigh's lawyers sought, but not before the good-soldier-turned-domestic-terrorist revealed himself to be as much a seeker of a cool breeze as the rest of us.

It appears that given enough heat, the block of ice that is McVeigh's unrepentant face is capable of perspiring. The hope that moved him to buy a fan for a cell he would spend 23 hours a day in was his way of acknowledging that he was only human after denying it for so long.

Even before his trial and conviction for blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which killed 168 of his fellow citizens and injured hundreds more, McVeigh made himself an object of near-universal contempt.

McVeigh planned to make a country that would sit in judgment of him unwitting collaborators in one more murder he had up his sleeve -- his own.

To the extent that millions of Americans are looking forward to McVeigh's scheduled execution on Monday -- the way children look forward to unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning -- he's succeeded.

Our nation finds it easy to recoil in horror when a thief's hand is cut off in "barbaric" Saudi Arabia. Yet there is barely a hint of indignation when an American is chemically strangled on a prison gurney in Indiana.

And what about the very pious attorney general of the United States? Will John Ashcroft, and the subordinates who meet in his office every morning for Bible study, extract a "spiritual" lesson from McVeigh's execution if it goes forward on Monday?

Will Ashcroft be able to reconcile his role in a grotesque spectacle of revenge with the clear meaning of a commandment that echoes from Genesis to Revelation: "Thou shalt not kill"?

Herein lies the triumph of Timothy McVeigh, a man long enamored with death. More than anyone, he understands that the government's determination to kill him is an echo of what he did in Oklahoma City -- and not an act that will bring about anything resembling justice or closure for the victims' families.

While the body count on the day of his execution will be smaller than the pool of death McVeigh created in Oklahoma City, we shouldn't assume the ripple effect will be smaller, too.

Timothy McVeigh knows that what the federal government intends to do to him on Monday is much worse than what any individual mass murderer is capable of inflicting on society.

By inviting those who've lost loved ones in Oklahoma City to witness a man being "humanely" put to death by lethal injection, the government intends to corrupt traumatized citizens by making them complicit in a moral and legal abomination.

It will be up to philosophers more adept than those we have now to explain how an execution can be private, yet enough of a spectacle to serve as a deterrent to future murderers; humane, yet the ultimate punishment society can inflict; morally coherent, yet terrifying.

There's a reason soldiers don't like to talk about their experiences when they get back from war. They're nauseated by killing. They understand the corrosive effect that witnessing it close up has on the soul.

But the government has no sense of moral reticence. It will gladly indulge the angriest cries for vengeance from citizens traumatized by loss in a way that only debases them in the long run. McVeigh's execution will take place in a swirl of violent emotions. Tears will be shed. God will be praised. Jokes will be made about him needing a fan in the place where he's going.

After all, we're a civilized nation that believes humiliation should precede death and extend beyond it, if possible.

Tony Norman's e-mail address is: tnorman@post-gazette.com

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