THE FEDERAL justice system provided the pulpit and a 19th-century
Victorian poet named William Ernest Henley supplied the sermon that Timothy
James McVeigh tried to preach on the day he was executed for the Oklahoma City
bombing that killed 168 people, including 19 children.
McVeigh left Henley's poem, "Invictus," as his final living testimony. It
was a sermon he must have hoped would sum up the meaning of the 1995 bombing,
which he always maintained was a patriotic rather than a murderous act.
His attempted use of Henley's 1875 poem as a sermon, however, misuses
Henley and reveals McVeigh's twisted mindset of anger, arrogance and defiant
resignation to his fate, concluding with these final lines of the poem: "I am
the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."
Back when school children memorized poems, "Invictus" was popular in the
classroom, perhaps because it appeals to the childlike-and ultimately
futile-desire in all of us not to have to rely on anything or anyone beyond
ourselves. Born in Gloucester, England, in 1849, Henley suffered the lifelong
burden of tubercular arthritis. In his poem, he thanks "whatever gods may be
for my unconquerable soul," an agnostic suggestion that not only is life cruel,
but it must be endured alone.
For those of us who do not approve of the death penalty, not even for
heinous crimes of this magnitude, there was a pragmatic as well as amoral
reason for not executing McVeigh. He was a human specimen needing more study, a
living testimony of individualism gone very wrong. He expressed no regret for
his crime and sought no spiritual solace beyond himself in his final hours.
What is the source and motive of such a gross human error? In McVeigh's case,
we now can only speculate.
McVeigh's murderous act was intended, or so he said, to serve as an act of
revenge against the United States government for the deaths that took place
during the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. The
families at Waco were motivated, they claimed, by religious zeal.
In contrast, McVeigh's act of defiance was inspired not by religion but by
his identification with the individualism and defiant attitude against
authority by the Branch Davidian leaders.
Individualism gone bad can be an ugly sight. A familiar example can be
found in the 1956 movie, "The Searchers." Its director, John Ford, was one of
the first Hollywood film directors to break out of the Western film
formula-which in his early years he helped define-by revealing that the heroic
lone gunman of the West was too often motivated more by defiance and anger than
by a sense of justice.
In "The Searchers," Ford gives his John Wayne character (Ethan Edwards) a
motivation for revenge-the murder of his brother, his sister-in-law and three
of their children by a roving band of Comanches. The film traces Ethan's search
for the lone surviving family member, Debbie, and for Scar, the Comanche chief
who led the raid and kidnaped Debbie.
In his smoldering rage, extended over the seven years of the search, Ethan
determines not only to kill Scar, but to kill Debbie as well because as the
wife of an Indian, she is now "defiled." The film concludes with Scar's death,
but not Debbie's, for Edwards, coming to his senses, sweeps her up in his arms
with the classic John Wayne line, "Let's go home, Debbie."
Through this film, Ford tries to set parameters. In warfare, the enemy is
the enemy soldier. But the Debbies of the world are not the enemy. Until he
comes to his senses, Ethan had forgotten that fact; driven by racism,
arrogance, anger and his defiant individualism, Ethan fully intended to execute
Timothy McVeigh's distorted understanding of the individual's mandate to
correct injustice gave him what he believed to be justification to slay
whatever victims were in his way as he employed what he termed a "legit tactic"
in the Oklahoma City bombing. What McVeigh refused to allow to seep into his
consciousness, however, was the fact that individualism has its limits set by
the larger communities of which we are all a part.
McVeigh could have had his avenues of expression to protest Waco and to
argue for the right of citizens to bear arms. But McVeigh belonged to no
community, except the community of hate. He chose not to protest nor to shout
out his disagreement with his government. Instead, he withdrew into himself and
operating out of an individual defiance as the "master of his fate" and the
"captain of his soul," he designated himself sole executor of innocent victims.
Now that he is dead, we may never learn when McVeigh encountered William
Ernest Henley's poem. Was it in prison, or earlier? Either way, he misused
Henley, whose poem did not express defiance against society but testified to
the poet's acceptance of a lifelong physical suffering. Henley's understanding
of survival is a lonely expression of individualism. McVeigh's use of Henley's
poem, on the other hand, is just the last petty act of a twisted soul who is
now in the hands, in Henley's phrase, of "whatever gods may be."
James M. Wall is senior contributing editor of The Christian Century, a Chicago-based magazine that focuses on Christianity and contemporary affairs
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