Strange as it may seem, Timothy McVeigh and George W. Bush shared the same analysis of McVeigh’s execution Monday morning in Terre Haute. The Oklahoma City bomber, intoned Bush, “met the fate he chose for himself six years ago”–the perfect mirror of McVeigh’s own vision of himself as “the master of my fate,” in his citation of William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus.”
The notion of “fate”–a predetermined outcome–sanitizes state-sponsored killing even as it fulfills McVeigh’s megalomaniacal delusions. But fate had nothing to do with it. Death sentences are a matter of caprice rather than legal predetermination, as evinced by the twenty-one of twenty-three federal death-row inmates remaining in Terre Haute whose “fate” was to be born nonwhite. Myth: “The severest sentence for the gravest of crimes,” as Bush declared Monday, employing McVeigh as a handy fig leaf for a federal death row even more racially out of kilter than its state counterparts. Reality: The capital trial norm remains “the death penalty not for the worst crime, but the worst lawyer,” in the words of litigator Stephen Bright.
One salient political and legal fact received scant consideration Monday: Because it was a federal execution, McVeigh’s killing was the first in two generations on behalf of all of us. But “all of us,” or even the majority of us, no longer support the death penalty. The government has gone back into the killing business at the very moment when the national capital punishment consensus has eroded, as indicated by polls showing support for death sentences slipping below 50 percent if replaced by life terms without parole. McVeigh’s execution was supposed to turn this trend around. Instead, the FBI’s documents blunder and the generally sordid spectacle from Terre Haute only fed public unease.
Sanitizing was pretty much the universal order of business Monday. The news media made much of their sensitivity to Oklahoma City’s survivors. But only the Daily Oklahoman consistently noted the diversity of survivor opinion on McVeigh’s execution, and among broadcasters only KWTW, an Oklahoma City station, reported that nearly a third of the 325 people who had reserved chairs for the closed-circuit telecast elected not to show up. And only the Chicago Tribune has bothered to report–in an interview with an anesthesiologist shortly before McVeigh’s original execution date in May–that lethal injection deaths like McVeigh’s are often far more painful than they may appear to witnesses. The closed circuit telecast of McVeigh’s killing also offered powerful ammunition against the argument from some leading abolitionists that public broadcasts of executions would lead to widespread outrage against them. “It was such a peaceful death. That made it more palatable,” witness Archie Blanchard said on NBC, after confessing that before the telecast it had been “hard to think about being there.”
Also missing from press coverage was any recognition of McVeigh’s forgotten conspirators. Not John Doe #2, but the wide range of “mainstream” right-wing politicians and broadcasters and publishers and gun lobbyists who exploited the Branch Davidian deaths in Waco with wild conspiracy theories, ratifying McVeigh’s delusional rage and naming his enemy. Just a few of those sharing collateral guilt: the National Rifle Association, which not long before Oklahoma City called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms “jack-booted government thugs, federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens”; Representative Helen Chenoweth, who declared that America’s national parks had been taken over by the United Nations; Senator Bob Smith, who temporarily dropped his GOP affiliation in favor of the paranoid, antigovernment populists of the US Taxpayers Party; and antichoice fanatics who pointed the way to Oklahoma City with their abortion clinic bombings of the early nineties. It is easier to treat Tim McVeigh as an inexplicable aberration who can be evicted from history than to recall just how widely evident were obsessions like his.
President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft now turn their attention to Juan Raul Garza, scheduled for execution on June 19. In between, Bush traveled to Europe, arriving in Spain, which was in an uproar over a falsely convicted Spanish citizen recently released from Florida’s death row. America’s death penalty has for years baffled our European partners, but it is only now becoming a serious diplomatic and political issue. France is refusing to extradite Buffalo abortion shooter James Kopp until prosecutors agree to spare him from capital charges, and Germany is suing the United States over execution of a German national who was never informed of his consular rights. In Ireland, voters on June 7 overwhelmingly approved a referendum permanently abolishing capital punishment from the country’s Constitution. Capital punishment now isolates the US abroad as it divides Americans at home. The McVeigh execution, instead of marking a new era of federalized capital punishment, may turn out to be the high-water mark before the long-overdue retreat of the capital punishment tide.