Published on Saturday, May 12, 2001 in the Independent / UK
Timothy McVeigh is a Symbol of an Enduring Commitment to Violent Retribution
by Fergal Keane
On the train north, between Baltimore and Philadelphia, the conductor is talking about kids and guns. That morning a 15-year-old boy has been telling a Florida court how he shot his teacher; it is the lead item on most of the morning news shows and in the papers. The conductor has noticed my colleague's fine Essex accent and wants to know what an outsider thinks of all this. My colleague offers a good impression of the bemused foreigner, a shrug of the shoulders, a light roll of the eyes. The man wants to talk, and so I drag myself away from The New Yorker and a story about former Senator Bob Kerrey and how he killed civilians in Vietnam, and listen while the conductor expresses wonderment at the idea of policemen with no guns.
Addressing the rest of the carriage, he declares: "Can you imagine it, cops with no guns. Can you imagine how wonderful that would be here?" A lady behind us pipes up: "Cops with no guns. We could start out by trying to get high school kids without guns." People are nodding in agreement in the seats around us. And they don't look like New York or Boston liberals. Business people, older folk heading to the city for a long weekend, and a group of what I take to be college footballers, all loud laughter and drinking stories.
When the conductor announces that English cops are called bobbies, the jocks burst into hearty, he-man laughter. "But they got no guns," he says, "no guns for cops or kids. That is good stuff, ladies and gentlemen." Call me naive but I felt I'd struck out and found the American liberal train conductor. And then while queuing for a hot dog in the dining car I saw him again and asked the question that shattered my illusion into thousands of tiny pieces.
"What do you think about McVeigh?"
"The execution?" he replied.
I nodded. "The bastard is getting out too easy. He should've got the chair."
"But the whole spectacle of the thing, the closed-circuit TV cameras and all that. Doesn't it bother you?" I asked.
"No. Like I said, the only thing bothers me is that he gets to fall asleep first. You think of all the lives that bastard took, all those people who didn't do any harm to anyone."
And that was the end of the conversation. The conductor, it should be said, is only expressing the feeling of a huge majority of Americans. Not all might wish the pain and torture of, say, the electric chair on McVeigh but all the polls show overwhelming approval for the first federal execution since 1963. The crime was monstrous and the killer has shown no remorse. Instead he has mocked his victims by referring to them as "collateral damage" in his war with the government.
From his cell in Terre Haute penitentiary in Indiana, McVeigh smiles without pity and that smile burns into the heart of America. McVeigh wants to die (although the release of new FBI documents has delayed his execution) and his wanting inflames the hatred of his enemies even more. For the victims' families there is not even the slender recompense of his guilt, for if McVeigh feels any, it has been suffocated by his arrogant self-justifications. Here is what America is saying, barely under its breath: be done with him, wipe him out, erase him, send him to hell with Oswald and let us move on.
The nation is counting down to the spectacle of a monster's death. It is not quite the scaffold erected before the vengeful crowd, but very nearly.
Timothy McVeigh is a symbol not only of America's oh so lunatic fringe but of an enduring commitment to violent retribution that has endured from the 19th-century streets of Laredo to the 21st-century public life of the most powerful democracy in the world. Never before have I felt so acutely the fierce incongruity between America's visions of itself, between the literate pages of The New York Times, the intelligence of National Public Radio, the great galleries and libraries of this city and the America of gun worship and state-sponsored executions. Will the real America please stand up?
I have travelled enough in the "other" America and I shouldn't be confused, but New York can beguile you; sitting in Barnes and Noble and poring over The New York Review of Books while a Chopin nocturne flutters in the air, you might struggle to believe this is a country where a man can be strapped to a table and injected with poison, or forced into a chair where a huge electric shock will be used to burn him to death, replete with popping eyes, involuntary defecation and boiling blood. And the characters who permit this have the nerve to lecture the Chinese about human rights?
At least in China you are spared the blather about liberty and about the rights of man. I had always understood the most fundamental right of all to be the right to life. Timothy McVeigh took away 168 lives in Oklahoma City and became the biggest mass murderer in American history.
He justified his actions by saying it was an act of war and that civilians are inevitably killed in wars. Horse manure of course, but what excuse will his killers give us? That it will bring back the dead? Of course it won't. That it will teach others not to imitate his crime? Not a chance. (The likes of McVeigh, the cold and sociopathic loners, are not deterred by the possibility of punishment.) That by taking a life we show that the taking of life is wrong? I am sorry, but on both logical and moral grounds that is an impossible argument.
So we are left with vengeance, the one honest explanation for the death penalty. It is not a justification, but seen from the standpoint of those who have lost their loved ones, it is understandable. Nobody can lecture the father of a murdered child on his moral responsibilities. But what excuse does "society" have when it embarks on the kind of vile spectacle which the McVeigh killing will involve. There are plenty of rationalisations, as I've outlined above, but I no longer hear human voices, only a low, vengeful growl.
Timothy McVeigh will be dead soon. The mass murderer has said he wants his body cremated so that there will be no autopsy. He doesn't want doctors examining his brain for signs of a mental malady that may have impelled him to such destruction.
For McVeigh has told them already: he was not mad in the clinical sense, he was mad at his government and, like masters of terror the world over, his cause overrode any qualms about the taking of innocent life.
He will be immortalised by Gore Vidal trotting in the footsteps of Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) and Norman Mailer (The Executioner's Song) who has spoken of his admiration for McVeigh (not his deeds, we must be careful to say) and who will write about the execution from the standpoint of one of McVeigh's invited guests.
There will probably be books and a film or two and then the story will begin to die away. The survivors and their families will live on with the awful loss. It will be remembered on anniversaries: in five years' time, 10 years' time there will be documentaries and newspaper features. But how long will it take before America recognises that the federal execution of McVeigh that wretched and murderous man is, like all judicial killings, a grotesque act of national barbarism?
The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.