Strange as it may seem, Timothy McVeigh and George W. Bush shared the same analysis of McVeigh's execution Monday morning, June 11, 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 that 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 in 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 doctor shooter James Kopp until prosecutors agree to spare him from capital charges, and Germany is suing the United States over the 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.
Now that Timothy McVeigh has been executed, I suppose we're all supposed to stop talking about it--to "enjoy closure," a bit like the election.
But McVeigh's execution was troubling on so many levels, it's hard to know where to begin. It was alarming to watch the procedural impatience, the official "just get it over with" mentality, despite defense lawyers' not having had a chance to go through more than 4,000 pages of FBI documents that no one disputes ought to have been turned over before McVeigh's trial.
It was distressing to hear the semantic shiftiness of our President as he described the event. To us individualists at home, he said that it was McVeigh who "chose" this method of reckoning; to a European audience it was "the will of the people in the United States." Like some libertarian Pontius Pilate, Bush washed his hands of any responsibility, skillfully uncoupling the role of the executive from execution. It's bad enough to have a death penalty; it is positively chilling when the chief poohbah shrugs it off as though helpless, assigning federally engineered death to forces beyond him.
It was incredible to see anti-death penalty commentators apologizing constantly, always having to blither "of course no one condones his actions"--as though arguing for life imprisonment made one the squishiest, most bleeding-heart of moral equivocators. As a New York Times commentary observed, "Experts said it was the wrong case to debate--many people who do not approve of the death penalty wanted Mr. McVeigh to die."
Yet if one really wants to test the commitment of a civilization to its expressed principles of justice, the McVeigh case is exactly the right case to debate. There was little question as to his guilt (even if the question of conspiracy remains an open one in some quarters), his crime was inexpressibly reprehensible and he maintained a demeanor of controlled, remorseless calculation to the end. In other words, it is precisely the dimension of his evil that presses us to consider most seriously the limits of state force. The question is whether we want to license our government to kill, rather than just restrain by imprisoning, the very worst among us.
Much recent debate about capital punishment has focused on probabilities: the repeated demonstration that "beyond a reasonable doubt" is a matter of considerable uncertainty and outright error. I have recommended before Actual Innocence by Jim Dwyer, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, and I do so here again. These lawyers' work with the Innocence Project has led to dozens of releases from death row and to calls for moratoriums in states where pro-death penalty sentiment once ran high.
There is also the question of disparate impact, particularly upon minorities and the poor. "There are no racial overtones in [McVeigh's] conviction," wrote the New York Times in an editorial. Perhaps that's true if considered in a vacuum, but certainly not with regard to its procedural legacy. If the FBI couldn't get right the most important and supposedly most careful investigation in its history--and still no stay was granted--then there is no hope in any other case. McVeigh's "nonracial" fate, moreover, will surely be invoked highhandedly in all those more routine, less highly scrutinized cases. The fact that of the remaining federal death row inmates only two are white is, according to John Ashcroft, merely "normal." For more on this aspect of the debate, I recommend reading Legal Lynching: The Death Penalty and America's Future, by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. and The Nation's own Bruce Shapiro. Forthcoming from The New Press, it is an eloquent argument against the inequity of the death penalty's administration and makes a compelling case against its violent irreversibility, its unredeemable finality as pursued by prosecutors, judges and juries who are, after all, far from all-knowing or divine.
One of the saddest parts of the McVeigh saga was listening to the endlessly amplified testimonials of those survivors and family members whose sentiments were premised on vengeance being "mine" rather than the Lord's. One woman wished the electric chair had been used, because it would have been more painful. Another said, "I think bombs should be strapped on him, and then he can walk around the room forever until they went off and he wouldn't know when it would happen."
Such traumatized expectations led to predictable disappointment. "I really wanted him to say something," said one witness. "I wanted him to see me," said another. "I thought I would feel something more satisfying, but I don't," said a victim's son. "For him just to have gone asleep seems unfair." This sort of desire for "more" leaves us poised on the edge of an appetite for re-enacted violence and voyeurism. Given the horrific losses McVeigh's crime incurred, this primal hunger can be almost seductive--a howl of mourning very hard to resist, never mind debate. But it is dangerous if it allows us to lose sight of the fact that the debate we must have is, again, about the limits of state force, not about devising the perfect mirror of each victim's suffering.
But the bottomlessness of that individual trauma is not something we can afford to ignore either. For a wise and extremely moving reflection on this dimension, I recommend Susan Brison's Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self, forthcoming from Princeton. Brison, a Dartmouth College philosophy professor who was raped, strangled and left for dead, analyzes the post-traumatic stress syndrome that still colors her life and reflects on the resilience needed to carry on. "Trauma," she writes, "destroys the illusion of control over one's life. It fractures the chronology of a life's narrative--not in the way a stopped watch makes time look like it's standing still, but like the thirteenth chime of a crazy clock that throws everything that came before into question."
"9:03" reads an inscription on the Oklahoma City National Memorial. Would that we could undo that awful moment in Oklahoma City by sacrificing McVeigh's one life for all the others, but the difficult paradox of healing is having to live on and through that wilderness of grief with no illusion of control.
For more information, see our Death Row Roll Call.
For more information, see our Death Row Roll Call.
There is probably no punishment more painful to Timothy McVeigh than the great joke just played by the cosmos. In his fantasy life McVeigh has fancied himself a sort of stoic samurai, avenging himself on the FBI for Waco and then committing hara-kiri by halting appeals. In one letter McVeigh referred to his impending execution as a version of "suicide by cop"; he has planned as his last words William Henley's war horse "Invictus": "I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul." It's taken another spectacular FBI blunder to puncture McVeigh's grand delusion. Now Attorney General Ashcroft promises that McVeigh will be executed in Terre Haute on June 11 come hell or high water, but don't bet on it. McVeigh's game is to control his story by any means possible, and he may still play the only Invictus card left in his deck by initiating the appeals he previously rejected.
In the weeks leading up to the May 16 execution date, pundits predicted that McVeigh's execution would restore popular confidence in capital punishment. Instead, we have gotten a national teach-in on one of the defining evils of capital trials: the fallibility and corruption of law enforcement. If the FBI can "misplace" a cache of documents in the most notorious death-penalty case since the Rosenbergs, is it any wonder that nearly 100 factually innocent people have ended up on death row in recent years?
While McVeigh's case has in many ways been historically unique, in this respect it is typical. Back-drawer evidence is part of the everyday landscape of capital punishment in America. According to Columbia University professor James Liebman's remarkable study "A Broken System" (available online at justice.policy.net/jpreport), vital suppressed evidence has led to dismissal of one in five capital cases since 1973. (More than half of capital cases, Liebman found, are dismissed or retried for "grave constitutional error.") When it comes to capital punishment, the last-minute "oops" is the norm, not the exception. That so many executions go ahead anyway is only because of the current Supreme Court's cavalier attitude toward evidence discovered after a death sentence is pronounced. Justice Rehnquist complains of the "enormous burden that having to retry cases based on stale evidence" would demand.
Why did President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft delay McVeigh's execution? To "protect the integrity of our system of justice," in Ashcroft's words, which he defined as "a more important duty than any single case." In other words, official malfeasance, undisclosed evidence and public uncertainty all demanded a timeout. Fair enough.
In reality, though, in capital cases "the integrity of the system of justice" is already nonexistent. Just since January, judges in Louisiana, Texas, New York and Massachusetts have ordered the freeing of two innocent death-row inmates and four innocent lifers--their stories full of coerced confessions, doctored documents and suppressed evidence. Consider Ronnie Burrell, released from Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary in January, who came within two weeks of execution in 1996 for a murder he didn't commit. He had been arrested by a small-town sheriff trying to distract attention from his own corruption and was convicted on the purchased testimony of a career con man. All this came out only because his appeal was taken up by a Minnesota corporate lawyer in search of pro bono work who had a family connection to Louisiana.
Unlike Burrell, McVeigh's factual guilt is not in doubt (although the bomber's degree of culpability and mental state could yet form the basis for appeals of his death sentence). If the FBI's suppression of documents in his case, intentional or not, justifies a timeout, what about the rampant errors in dozens of frame-ups like Burrell's? Doesn't the systemic accumulated record of lost evidence, law-enforcement misconduct and outright factual innocence demand a timeout on all executions? In the final irony of the McVeigh case, which so often has managed to pull the system inside out, George W. Bush and John Ashcroft have now offered one of the best arguments yet for a national death-penalty moratorium.
The death penalty needs to be thought through by liberals, and its acceptance or rejection cannot be á la carte.
Attorney General John Ashcroft says he does not want Timothy McVeigh to "inject more poison into our culture"--a striking statement, given the method of McVeigh's execution. Accordingly, he intends to deny permission for television interviews during the Oklahoma City bomber's final weeks on federal death row. (The Oklahoma legislature had a similar purpose in mind when it passed a resolution condemning a new book about McVeigh--thus bringing it more publicity, as a dissenting legislator pointed out.) At the same time, Ashcroft has made a dramatic cultural intervention of his own, authorizing the closed-circuit telecast of McVeigh's execution to perhaps 200 family members of his victims.
Both of Ashcroft's announcements show clearly how capital punishment is coarsening American institutions. Although most of the press coverage did not mention it, the Attorney General's diktat banning broadcast interviews applies not only to McVeigh but to all federal death-row inmates. However repellent the thought of a McVeigh TV interview, the ban is one more step in a repressive, systematic national clampdown on press coverage of prisons, which in some states, like Virginia, has led to a virtual blackout of inmate interviews. In the future, Ashcroft's interview ban could deny broadcast access to a federal inmate far different from McVeigh, someone with a legitimate claim of innocence or discrimination--a real likelihood given the nearly 100 death-row inmates in state prisons exonerated by new evidence and the large percentage of capital convictions overturned for grave constitutional error in the original trial.
The question of a public telecast of McVeigh's lethal injection is now moot with Ashcroft's closed-circuit plan, though the drumbeat for public executions continues--with some support among notable death-penalty abolitionists and civil libertarians like Sister Helen Prejean and Nat Hentoff. Televising executions, their argument goes, would either sicken the public or at least make Americans more accountable for what goes on in their name. We disagree. We see telecasts of executions as a fundamentally different matter from death-row interviews. Today's executions by lethal injection are exercises in the engineering of death, the institutionalizing of death, the bureaucratizing of death. Far from shocking America, viewing lethal injections through the distancing glow of a TV screen will further normalize state killing--as television ultimately normalizes the forms of violence it depicts.
Ashcroft did not invent closed-circuit telecasts of an execution--it has been tried at the state level--but it raises disturbing questions. For one thing, as several technological experts have pointed out, the phone-line transmission may not be immune to hacking or decryption--raising the prospect of a McVeigh snuff film in the near or distant future. More important, it makes this first federal execution, one moving forward even as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joins the call for a death-penalty moratorium, a spectacle of individual vengeance for McVeigh's victims--a dangerous turn toward privatizing justice.
Far from shifting the spotlight to the survivors of Oklahoma City, Ashcroft's decision heightens the perverse amplification of McVeigh's voice initiated by his death sentence. The press spent the early weeks of spring speculating about how large a crowd would watch McVeigh take the needle. Instead of fading into anonymity, McVeigh has kept himself on the front page until his final moments and turned the chronicle of his last months into a testament for the militia fringe, who will make him a martyr. This is justice neither for McVeigh's victims nor for the country--and that is the real poison seeping into our culture from the federal death chamber in Terre Haute.
Almost every week, it seems, we get
to read about some state execution, performed or imminent, wreathed
in the usual toxic fog of race or sex prejudice, or incompetency of
counsel, or prosecutorial misconduct.
Take the recent
execution in Ashcroft country, February 7, of Stanley Lingar, done in
the Potosi Correctional Center in Missouri, for killing 16-year
Thomas Allen back in 1985. In the penalty phase of Lingar's trial,
prosecutor Richard Callahan, who may now be headed for the seat on
the Missouri State Supreme Court recently vacated by his
mother-in-law, argued for death, citing Lingar's homosexuality to the
jury as the crucial factor that should tilt poison into the guilty
man's veins. Governor Bob Holden turned down a clemency appeal and
told the press he'd "lost no sleep" over signing off on Lingar's
Is there any hope that the ample list of innocent
people either lost to the executioners or saved at the eleventh hour
will prompt a national moratorium such as is being sought by Senator
Russell Feingold of Wisconsin?
A year ago it seemed
possible. On January 31, 2000, Illinois Governor George Ryan
suspended imposition of the death penalty in his state on the grounds
that he could not support a system "which, in its administration, has
proven so fraught with error."
By June a Field Poll
reported the sensational finding that in the state with the most
crowded death row in the nation, Californians by nearly 4 to 1
favored stopping state executions to study how the death penalty was
being applied. The Field Poll respondents were told about wrong
convictions, also about appeals to Governor Gray Davis by religious
leaders for a moratorium. A poll at the end of last year, in which
California respondents were not offered this framework, put support
for a moratorium at 42 percent, just behind those opposed to any such
move. A national poll last fall found 53 percent for a
The discrepancy in the California polls
actually affords comfort to abolitionists, since it shows that when
respondents are told about innocent people saved from lethal
injection, often at the last moment, support for a moratorium soars.
It's a matter of public education.
But where are the
educators? Many eligible political leaders have fled the field of
battle, convinced that opposition to the death penalty is a sure-fire
vote loser. In the second presidential debate last fall Al Gore
wagged his head in agreement when George W. Bush declared his faith
in executions as a deterrent.
A few years ago Hillary
Clinton spoke of her private colloquys with the shade of Eleanor
Roosevelt. Their conversations left La Clinton unpersuaded, since she
stands square for death, as does New York's senior senator, Charles
Indeed, the death penalty is no longer a gut
issue, or even a necessary stand, for those, like Schumer, who are
associated with the Democratic Party's liberal wing. On February 12
the New York Post quoted Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, long known as a
leading death-penalty opponent, as saying that "it would be futile"
to try to repeal capital punishment in New York.
Cuomo, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, told the Post that she
believes her husband, Andrew, a contender for the Democratic
nomination for governor, shares her views. "To tell you the truth, on
the death penalty, it's not as big an issue in the state as it was a
few years ago." Mrs. Cuomo's father-in-law, Mario, repeatedly vetoed
death-penalty measures during his years as governor.
line with Kerry Kennedy Cuomo's spineless stance, many liberal or
what are now cautiously called "human rights" groups have also found
it politic to sideline capital punishment as an issue. No better
illustration is available than the recent tussle over John Ashcroft's
nomination as Attorney General. Scores of groups flailed at him on
choice, racism and hate crimes, but not on the most racist
application of hatein the arsenal of state power: the death
Return for a moment to the fight to save Lingar's
life. Privacy Rights Education Project, the statewide Missouri gay
lobby group, endorsed Holden in his gubernatorial race. PREP,
however, was quite muted on Lingar's fate, taking little action
except to send a letter to the governor the day before the execution.
Another gay organization, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against
Defamation, the folks who want to shut down Dr. Laura, is a national
group but happens to have an office in Kansas City, Missouri. Surely
what prosecutor Callahan did to Stanley Lingar is well beyond
defamation. Where was the Gay and Lesbian Alliance on this case? Not
a peep from them. Noisy on hate crimes but silent on the death
penalty is the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest
The issue of capital punishment is
drawing much more attention these days. Just when help could really
make a difference, where are all these (ostensibly) liberal and
progressive groups? The Anti-Defamation League (all right, strike the
word "ostensible"), whose national director, Abraham Foxman, pulled
down $389,000 in 1999, was busy writing letters for Marc Rich. The
death penalty? The ADL endorsed Bill Clinton's appalling
Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
impetus given by Ryan last year could fall apart. Governor Ryan
himself faces difficult re-election prospects in 2002, and a
successor could rescind the moratorium. Liberals should abandon their
absurd and dangerous obsession with hate crimes and muster against
this most hateful excrescence on the justice system. Let them take
encouragement from the district attorney of San Francisco, Terrence
Hallinan, who told a San Francisco court on February 6 that he would
not participate in the capital sentencing of one Robert Massey since
"the death penalty does not constitute any more of a deterrent than
life without parole" and, among other evils, "discriminates racially
and financially, being visited mainly on racial minorities and the
poor.... It forfeits the stature and respect to which our state is
entitled by reducing us to a primitive code of
Capital punishment will be one of the defining issues of the coming year.