Published on Monday, June 11, 2001 in The Progressive magazine
On the Death of Timothy McVeigh
by Matthew Rothschild
It was the first day of summer vacation.
My kids were home, lounging in front of the TV in their pajamas and undershorts.
No need to get ready for school.
But there was a lesson to be learned this morning.
About the cruelty and perverse logic of the death penalty.
When the media witnesses took the podium after the warden announced the death of Timothy McVeigh, they relayed mundane detail after detail of the execution: the timing, what McVeigh was wearing, how many times he nodded and to whom.
But a couple of the details were ghoulish: He died with his eyes open, and his skin turned an eerie sort of yellow.
At that, my son William, nine, winced.
William had asked me yesterday, "If he is going to be executed for killing someone, then what about the person who executes him? Won't it go on and on?"
As any child can figure out, there is a basic lack of consistency and morality in imposing the death penalty: If killing is wrong, then why is it OK for the state to kill the killer?
The death penalty, even when applied to the biggest mass murderer in U.S. history (not counting Presidents, Defense Secretaries, and CIA Directors), is not justifiable. It does not deter. It simply exacts revenge.
And for some of the victims' families, even lethal injection was not enough. I heard a father who lost his daughter at Oklahoma City say, on Sunday night, that McVeigh should have been stoned to death.
I can understand the feelings of the victims' families. But we don't have relatives of the victims impose sentences in our system for one simple reason: It's impossible for them to be impartial and to arrive at a fair decision.
And fairness is wanting in our criminal justice system, as even McVeigh's case makes clear.
The FBI's failure to hand over more than 4,000 documents to the defense should have been grounds for a longer stay of execution, at the very least. Prosecutorial error and prosecutorial misconduct occur with appalling frequency, as The Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post have shown in lengthy investigations.
But even when the prosecutors act by the book, even when the guilt of the inmate is beyond question, as in the case of McVeigh, even when the crime is horrific, as in the case of McVeigh, the death penalty serves no purpose but to coarsen our society and throw us back to a medieval time.
"Enough is enough. Turn it off," my wife, Jean, said, after we had heard from five or six of the media witnesses.
And so I did.
I was relieved, and my kids were relieved.
They could go back to their summer vacation.
But there is no vacation for the machinery of death.
Another federal execution is scheduled for next week.
Copyright 2001 The Progressive, Madison, WI