AUSTIN — "Invictus"?! Lord save us, what a sick man. Talk about delusional.
That Timothy McVeigh, mass murderer of children, saw himself as the master of his ship and the captain of his soul is beyond irony. Now he's going to ruin a perfectly good minor poem.
To the extent that Timothy McVeigh can be understood — or that we'd want to understand him — he obviously considered himself part of the warrior culture. Warrior mythology is an ancient and in some ways still-noble ideal. "Duty, honor and country" is a code that continues to reverberate with most of us. From Hector of ancient Troy to Col. William Travis to Audie Murphy, the romance of the warrior role still has great appeal. To be a warrior in a comfortable, commercial, bourgeois culture is to be profoundly out of place. It is also a way of finding a sense of superiority over all the fat, lazy civilians of the world.
In McVeigh's favorite book, "The Turner Diaries," the hero is an outlaw guerilla warrior whose motive is not just glorified racism. In the book, the "mud people" (black Americans) are subhuman, while the Jews are behind everything and white men are an endangered species. Paranoia, racism and a profound distaste for and sense of superiority to the complacent sheep of the American middle class are all intermingled in a poisonous stew of badly written prose. The book also includes the recipe for the bomb McVeigh used in Oklahoma City and a hilariously bad sex scene — and if you think those two don't belong in the same sentence, you have no idea how bad this book is.
One of the more puzzling aspects of McVeigh's warped sense of the warrior culture is that he so clearly loathed the "country" for which he claimed to act. I rarely venture into the realm of parlor psychology, mostly because I am hopelessly unqualified, but McVeigh is not just an aberration. Exactly how a supposed code of honor could drive someone to murder 168 people is beyond me, but it is obviously not unique to McVeigh.
This nation has a huge population that identifies the manly warrior with guns, bombs and killing. Believe me, I am not blaming this society for Timothy McVeigh. That someone could be unhappy with both the culture and the government of America seems not at all odd to me — I am, frequently. But the point of a democracy is that there is, in theory, something you can do about it: organize, protest, run for office. All of which is damn tame to an immature mind, compared to blowing up a building.
It is this longing for a sense of mission, for a purpose, to be in a heroic drama in a country that judges accomplishment only by the size of a person's bank account that is so familiar about McVeigh.
Not to put McVeigh and Charlton Heston in the same category (I sincerely apologize even for the implication), but I was struck by that dramatic footage of Heston at the recent National Rifle Association convention holding up a rifle and proclaiming that it would have to be "pried from my dead, cold hands." It's the easiest thing in the world to make fun of such self-dramatizing claptrap, especially in an age with an overdeveloped sense of irony — but there are many people who have no ear for irony, just as others have no ear for music.
People say McVeigh was the poster boy for the death penalty. White, had good lawyers, had a number of opportunities in life, was not retarded or evidently insane and, best of all, we know he did it. The pro-death-penalty people have an underdeveloped taste for vengeance, as far as I'm concerned. McVeigh got off too easily. If we'd put the s.o.b. in the Cowboy Gulag for 50 years, then he could have learned what suffering is.
Anthropologists tell us one of the great needs of Western civilization is for a rite of passage, for some ceremony — a sort of trial by fire that marks passage into adulthood. War and its substitutes, like jousting and hunting, have long been recognized as such a rite.
American kids often invent their own weird rites of passage — stealing hubcaps, taking LSD — for lack of some recognized rite. Despite the fact that he had served in an actual war, McVeigh seems to have tried to invent another war in a search for mission, for some Luke Skywalker role. The weird part is not that his urge was so strange, but that it is so familiar.