We Have Met the Enemy . . .

The Timothy McVeigh case presents an extraordinary challenge for us anti-death penalty right-to-lifers. Here the arguments for execution are strong and clear. For one thing there is the scale of the crime to consider--168 killed and many more injured in a single stroke. Then there is the cold and calculating nature of the crime. It was utterly unprovoked and the victims were random innocents, unknown to the killer, some of them small children. It was a crime planned to produce a body count, as McVeigh may or may not have said in the alleged confession published by The Dallas Morning News.

Further compounding the horror of McVeigh’s crime is its political-collective nature. It was not an attack on a person, though God knows enough people were killed. It was instead an attack on the state, and on the democratic civil society that still, however shakily, underlies the American state. It could be argued that this is more serious than ordinary street murders because if civil society dissolves so will the ties that bind citizens together. The result would be a Hobbesian war of all against all—or street crime as a way of common life.

The political nature of McVeigh’s assault could also be said to argue for execution by suggesting invocation of the rules of war. McVeigh, though silent at his trial, clearly sees himself as a combatant, and the warrior expects to pay the ultimate price. So, one could argue, there is no reason to have qualms about exacting that price.

In fact, warrior McVeigh fought the power of alleged federal tyranny at home the same way he fought Saddam Hussein as a member of our high-tech force in the Gulf war. As in Oklahoma City, the Gulf war was waged with wholesale slaughter and destruction administered from a safe distance. McVeigh is truly the most American of terrorists, and his military service is only the most obvious part of the picture. His earlier life is a prototypical picture of America in his generation, shaped by the forces of family break-up and economic decline. (McVeigh’s parents divorced when he was 10.) He’s from a rust belt community devastated by deindustrialization, and his own father was a laid-off auto worker.

MCVEIGH’S VERY HYPER-Americanism may help fuel the public urge to do him in. The fact that a man so clearly "one of us" could do such horrid things is almost too much to contemplate. It will be easier simply to send him away—eternally—and pretend that the forces that helped create him are also laid to rest.

Of course, the case for sparing McVeigh ultimately rests on theological or philosophical convictions about the intrinsic value of each individual human life. Even in most non-pacifist religious and ethical traditions, the taking of human life must be justified by the saving of other lives. The death penalty doesn’t do that. The victims of murder cannot be saved. It’s too late. Possible future victims can be protected by the less extreme measure of life without parole—clearly an appropriate sentence for McVeigh. To kill, collectively and cold-bloodedly, simply for revenge, demeans and pollutes the moral authority of the civic community.

That said, there are also practical considerations weighing against execution in this case. Killing McVeigh would, inevitably, create a Far Right martyr. Martyrdom would draw to McVeigh’s side thousands of angry and alienated people who would otherwise stay away. His execution would confirm the suspicions of many that democracy has become a mere cover story for tyrannical forces behind the scenes. It would suggest that the system is indeed maintained by brute force, and it might encourage others to respond in kind.

On the other hand, sparing McVeigh would demonstrate that America is capable, at least occasionally, of rising above the war of all against all. We should prove that we can, even in this most heinous case, settle for mere justice, and forgo the temptation of revenge.

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches creative writing at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and is the author, most recently, of Black & White Together: The Search for Common Ground (Orbis Books, 1996).

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"We Have Met the Enemy . . ."
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