The monster is dead. What is left to say about the sorry life, hideous crime and anticlimactic death of Timothy McVeigh? ``Punishment is what revenge calls itself; with a hypocritical lie it creates a good conscience for itself,'' wrote the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche more than a century ago. ``Closure'' is what revenge calls itself today; the terms have changed, the lie remains.
McVeigh's execution exposed lies at the heart of capital punishment and its justification. Capital punishment stands as the ultimate case of what UM law professor Jonathan Simon called ``governing through crime'' or ``the victim as sovereign. . . . In our time the crime victim is emerging as a dominant representation of the governable interests of the population.''
This is clearest in regard to capital punishment, where politicians, prosecutors and other proponents readily admit that it doesn't deter and is more costly than lifetime incarceration, yet they justify it as the way to provide justice and closure for victims.
The McVeigh execution is a supreme example of ``the victim as sovereign.'' The government went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that victims of the Oklahoma City bombing -- and they alone -- would be able to witness ``justice'' in order to achieve ``closure.'' It did so by first by seeking the death penalty and later by setting up a secure closed-circuit broadcast of the execution and inviting 2,000 victims to witness it.
What happened is telling. Only 232 people, fewer than 12 percent of the eligible, took up the government's invitation. What does it say about capital punishment that even among those most directly damaged by a dastardly deed that more than 88 percent didn't care to witness the execution, carried out mainly to satisfy them? Or, if not for their benefit, why were the victims the only ones who were allowed to witness the telecast?
The conclusion is that there are victims and there are victims; they don't all want the same thing. Even in a worst-case scenario such as the Oklahoma City bombing in which the crime was premeditated, heinous, motivated by a twisted political hatred; the dead were 168 innocents, including 19 children; and the perpetrator was sane, utterly guilty and remorseless, many of the victims opposed the death penalty.
Indeed, one of the victims, Bud Welch, the father of a 23-year-old woman murdered by McVeigh, campaigned tirelessly against his execution and became an activist against the death penalty.
And what about the victims who accepted the government's invitation and witnessed the execution? Afterward, lack of satisfaction was the primary feeling they expressed. How come? Wasn't McVeigh dead, justice done, punishment inflicted, the chapter closed? No, they felt cheated, they said; he went too easily and painlessly. Here the double talk about capital punishment is really exposed. Politicians can talk justice and closure; it's really about vengeance, an eye for an eye. That's what the disappointed spectators wanted to see. Drawn and quartered, boiled in oil: these are demands a modern state under a Constitution that bans ``cruel and unusual punishment'' can never meet.
In capital punishment, as the McVeigh case makes crystal clear, the government nods in the direction of the sovereign victims and their presumed uniform need for revenge while pretending to be merely carrying out justice. But there is no unanimity among victims; the government bows to a false sovereign and does victims no favor by projecting onto them the basest instincts, and acting accordingly.
Ironically, the government's pretension not to be in the business of revenge prevents it from going far enough to satisfy those who really do want revenge. Covertly, capital punishment, in the abstract, promises revenge. In reality, it inevitably fails to deliver even on that.
Copyright 2001 Miami Herald