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Truth in Sentencing

06.04.2001 | SOCIETY

I'll start this essay where I've finished others, which is by saying that the death penalty can never be administered fairly, nor accurately, nor in a manner that ensures the guilty alone will die. For that it matter it does not kill the convicted in a way that deters future crime, nor offers meaningful solace to the bereaved. And it cannot exact revenge in a manner that those most bent on it would like, for it is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment from being "cruel and unusual." From, in other words, visiting upon the perpetrator of a heinous crime precisely what proponents of capital punishment want. This is the central paradox of the death penalty charade; it is the false promise of revenge.

I bring this all up, unsurprisingly, in the context of Timothy McVeigh's impending demise, scheduled originally for mid-May but put off 30 days by the bungling ineptitude of an FBI that seems incapable of escaping a single month without new revelations of scandal or incompetence. The FBI's pathetic skill set, however, is in this case appropriate, for it is on par with the misguided legal contortions and warped philosophies that justify the death penalty as an appropriate punishment for the Oklahoma City bomber. Killing Timothy McVeigh will not deliver what the death penalty promises. In fact, the only way that capital punishment could do what it is supposed to, in this case, would be if the government spared McVeigh, and executed his family instead.

On the surface, this might seem ludicrous. What, after all, has his family done to deserve such a fate? But if a life must be taken to compensate society for the lives lost in Oklahoma City, by what calculus should it be McVeigh's? How does the death of a guilty, evil man become a fair trade for the lives of 168 innocents? This question becomes far more difficult to answer when one takes into account the Eighth Amendment. McVeigh will likely suffer fairly little, going down in three injections of a lethal cocktail that, though painful and terrifying, will never approach the chasm-like suffering endured by survivors, widows, mothers, children, fathers and friends of those he took away. In the parlance of an eye for an eye, this is not a fair trade.

We should also bear in mind that McVeigh expects to die, and one can assume--given his pretensions toward martyrdom and his jaunty waiver of all appeals--that he always has. (Even now, as his lawyers battle for a new trial, they do so admitting that its central purpose is McVeigh's desire not to live, but to mock and belittle the government.) So our punishment for him will be the one he had long ago settled upon. McVeigh's was in many ways a kamikaze mission, and he embarked on the path to his atrocity fully reconciled to its cost. If news accounts are to be believed, he burns with a passion for his cause, and as Francis Bacon has noted, "there is no passion so weak that it cannot overcome the fear of death."

Carried to its inevitable end, the logic behind the death penalty demands, for us the living, that McVeigh suffer not death but loss, because the dead cannot feel what those left behind can. This is the hideous vacuum of murder, an open sore in the emotional fabric of the living that can be salved but never healed. The death of a convicted man only compounds this, for it forces more innocents--in this case McVeigh's family--to enter the realm of pain currently shared by the loved ones of his victims. Timothy McVeigh's execution would in some ways allow him to murder again, for it would inflict emotional death on the innocents who cared about him. The death penalty may provide closure, but it also opens other holes.

And yet, though McVeigh is prepared to die, one can be reasonably sure that he is not prepared to sacrifice his family. Yet it is only through the death of his family that he might feel a loss commensurate with that felt by the families of his victims. He will have to endure the deaths of innocents, involved in no war, snatched unfairly from their earthly lives. Only then might he know emptiness, helplessness, mute rage and a grief that can never be requited.

The entire premise of this argument is, of course, self-defeating. The idea that justice requires the death of innocents means that revenge is a failed vehicle for justice, and that it cannot work. Executing McVeigh's family may increase his suffering, but it will also lend him validation, for he will be able to wallow in all his evil knowing that the government he so loathes does indeed kill the innocent, as he so often opined it would. The death penalty, in every manner, is his game, his turf. When we step onto that field, though the crowds may roar and the scoreboard at game's end read GOVERNMENT 1, MCVEIGH 0, the bottom line will not be that he is dead. It will be that he is that he has remade us in his image, built of us the vengeful, intolerant, murderous state on which he constructed justification for his unjustifiable crime. Even in death, he will have won.

* * *

The clock is Timothy McVeigh's only demon, for time is the nemesis of all who pretend to the status of legend. Untimely deaths elevate the undeserving; life exposes them for what they are. There is no such thing as a living martyr, and society can pay no ransom to a mystery whose solution has not been abducted. Lee Harvey Oswald is an American cipher not for his role in the murder of John F. Kennedy, but for his own abrupt death days later, which ended any meaningful pursuit into the truth of that crime. In Oswald's absence, history--at its best the search for truth--walks always into a series of walls without doors when it attempts to understand the death of the president.

So let McVeigh live. Let him sit in a cell and become irrelevant, let his mystery slowly vanish, and let those who would make of him an idol see him instead for the fallacy that he is, kept alive by a government he swore would kill him. Let his fury grow chilled, and fall flat on the cold floors of federal prison. Most of all, let him understand loss. Let him watch his family age and die, and let him grieve for deaths he was powerless to prevent, and through this let him perhaps begin to comprehend the enormity of his deed. This is not about rehabilitation, and it is not about mercy. It is about denying him what he wants most.

For an ideologue, there can be no better stage than the death chamber. The chants, the pickets, the lights, sirens, cocked rifles and boom microphones, everywhere a sense of urgency, sense of history. There is no doubt in the death chamber that what is happening is an Event, and it is on Events that extremists pin their agendas, and ride into the sunset of myth. It is death, after all, that makes us immortal--when we are living we can be revealed as the men behind the curtain, not all-knowing wizards but petty, flawed, and banal. In a word, human.

Timothy McVeigh wants to leave this world in a haze of chemicals, which for him would be a blaze of glory. I see no reason to honor that request. Don't let him burn out. Make him fade away.

About the Author
Michael Manville's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications. He lives in Los Angeles.
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