die, McVeigh, die
June 11, 2001
Tim McVeigh was put to death at 7:15 this morning, Central Daylight time, by the Federal Government of the United States of America. He was convicted of crimes related to the terrorist bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, and the of killing 168 people (169, if you believe Salon'com's assertion that there was an extra leg in the rubble that didn't belong to anyone). And if you don't know any of this, you've been living in a hole since before April, 1995.
I'm not going to sway anyone on the merits of the death penalty here. Those who are for the death penalty are generally strongly for it, those opposed are passionately opposed - no minds would be changed by a short CSP article. And, while I personally oppose the death penalty, even I find it hard to object to the humane and relatively painless execution of a man who admits to having killed 168 people. What I do object to, what does make me most sad, is the rabidity with which we as a people killed this man. From the "Buh-bye Tim" signs on peoples' lawns, to the cheering and hollering on various radio morning shows, it is evident we took great pleasure in this very public execution.
While the 1967 film, Hang'em High, isn't among Clint Eastwood's best, the last half hour of it has stuck with me since the first time I saw it in maybe 4th or 5th grade. After Marshall Jeddediah Cooper rounds up a band of cattle rustlers and helps (against his will) to get them convicted and sentenced to hanging, the town and the surrounding countryside go into a kind of frenzy. People travel from miles in every direction to see the hanging of 6 men at once - among them, two teenaged boys. The towns inns fill to overflowing, people are camped in wagons and makeshift tents all around the outskirts, and the saloons are packed with drunken revelers. When the day of the hanging comes, the town square is packed shoulder to shoulder with screaming people -men, women and children. Beverage and food vendors hawk their wares to the rabid crowd, and even the whorehouse closes as the prostitutes join the crowd of spectators. The scene is ugly and dirty, and it is supposed to be. The plot calls for it - Clint's character has been unfairly lynched in his past, and he is remorseful. And the movie audience needs it to be ugly - we need to see a definite difference between that crowd and us. We need to be shown that the idea that people would cheerfully gather to watch other men die is primitive and repugnant, that it could never happen in modern times, that our evolved American society is beyond such base expressions of delight in another man's death.
The truth is, given the right cause, we are still that same mob. Given a man who is clearly guilty, who has attacked the country as a whole, who has killed not only adults, but children, too, and admitted to it, we are that mob. We collectively booed when McVeigh's execution was delayed so that time could be taken to weigh the recently uncovered FBI evidence. We celebrated when a federal judge declared that the evidence would not have changed the outcome of the trial, and that the execution could be carried out as planned. We did our best to try to get the execution broadcast via network television, cable television, pay-per-view television, the internet. Barring that, we tried to videotape the damn thing so we could see it later, in whatever context under which a judge might let the taping happen. And, this morning we hooted and hollered and sent each other emails with a picture of a blackened piece of toast in the shape of a man attached and played exaggerated frying sounds over the radio (even though McVeigh died by lethal injection, not by electrocution).
This morning, President Bush said, "Today every living person who was hurt by the evil done in Oklahoma City can rest in the knowledge that there has been a reckoning." He also said that "good overcomes evil." I hope he's right. But, again, looking at us, at the way many of us have acted in recent weeks and months, the drunk frat boys howling at "Face of Death IV," the farmers and ranchers crowded around to watch the hanging, I just don't know what to make of all this. Antonio Maria Pereira, a Portuguese Civil Rights activist, said ``The death penalty is a barbarism inappropriate to our times." Like I said earlier, I'm not going to argue the merits of capital punishment itself. But the way many have acted towards the execution can only be called barbaric.
I don't want to seem like I'm condemning the American people as a whole. Not all of us celebrated, of course, at least not this outwardly. In fact, I'm certain most Americans probably felt a little uncomfortable at the celebration of the rest, and looked away. But it still makes me cold inside, and sad. A few of us had courage enough to protest this seemingly unprotest-able event, but they protested against the death penalty, not against the seeming joy with which proponents of the execution carried it out. I think that, even for proponents of the death penalty, each execution should be a somber, sobering event. When a life is taken, no matter how repugnant we might view that life, we should not celebrate.
A group of people standing outside the prison in Indiana this morning chanted "die, McVeigh, die," and "this is for Oklahoma City." But, I don't think all of this was "for" anything. Mostly, I think, it was "against" us.