It's difficult to get over the idea that we failed Timothy McVeigh and that his execution fails us all. How deceptive a finale it is that leaves history neatly packaged in the cemetery of our imagination, safely removed from the festering reality of life. It happened, it's over, and we can now move on when we ought not to.
By killing McVeigh, we served only the purpose of avoiding responsibility for his creation. How convenient to not have a living reminder that this callow, awkward, unformed youth was a product of mainstream American culture--varnished by the "be all you can be" Army, no less--and not some easily dismissed dropout aberration. No, he was us in our darkest moments, even as we acknowledge gratefully that he was possessed by malevolent forces that the healthy can conquer.
If he was the devil, how did he get that way, this product of a strong Catholic family that raised a son to be a patriot, a son who then suddenly took his own government to be the enemy? What did he learn from us, his neighbors, the media and the government, that left him plotting in seedy motel rooms, manufacturing a weapon of mass destruction, while singing the disturbed loony tunes of the assassin?
His execution is to be denounced because it brings to an all-too-tidy conclusion a phenomenon that cries out for more complex and sustained examination. That's true in any capital case, but all the more so that 168 innocent men, women and children died at his hands, and scores of others were injured. It hardly serves their memory that McVeigh at worst will be venerated as a martyr by generations of lunatics to come and at best be dismissed as a weirdo actor in a script that is not of our hand.
We are told that the grieving relatives of those killed in the bombing need "closure," an unattainable state that has become the basic mantra of denial of harsh reality. It's a word now inevitably accompanied by the horrid phrase of "getting on" with the next phase of one's life, invoked even by McVeigh's lawyers before the execution to refer to their client's "future." But the so-called closure afforded by capital punishment, as some relatives of the dead have noted, cheapens the quest for real healing, which can never be an act of amnesia but rather requires the search for meaning in even the most dastardly of events.
For that we needed McVeigh alive, to be tormented every day in his own mind by the enormity of his crime, to the point where that smug self-righteousness of the killer would be pierced, and he finally would have to confront the pain of mass death as something other than a clinically ordered act of ideological game playing.
But we too, the uninvolved, needed his presence as an open wound to remind us of the pain that political madness, no matter its source, induces. In this case, the madness was, in effect, condoned when an unshaped youth was taught by his government to kill.
It should be a matter of deep national soul searching that we as a nation sent McVeigh to roam the desert on a Bradley fighting vehicle inflicting the "collateral damage" of the Gulf War. Did his military training prepare him to differentiate between what he did as his government's agent in Iraq and his own subsequent war on civilians? The absurdly celebrated mayhem of the Gulf War was the alternative to the college experience McVeigh never had. He was at least in need of a crash course on the distinction between what he called the "collateral damage" of the Oklahoma City bombing and the morality of shooting Iraqi draftees as they fled the battle.
Unfortunately, McVeigh completed his education at desultory gun shows in which patriotism often is equated with a defiance born of personal failure, and fire power is the means to dignity and freedom. That and the literature of angry white men, who believe their skin color and a musket should be all that is needed to make them meaningful players in the computerized global marketplace.
The merchants of madness will now exploit the government's execution of McVeigh as confirmation of their paranoia. Better to have had McVeigh as an aging reminder of how horrible the taste can be when the American brew is curdled.
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So now comes Bob Kerrey to remind us that even fair-haired boys may
commit the most unspeakable of war crimes. Or, as he puts it by way of
explaining the killing of at least thirteen unarmed Vietnamese women, older men
and children by a squad under his command: "Human savagery is a very
Indeed it is, and by the accounting of one veteran of his Navy SEAL
unit, disputed by others, the savagery may have extended to the rounding
up and cold-blooded execution of noncombatants. That's the memory also of
Vietnamese witnesses. Yet even the more benign version of former Sen.
Kerrey--that the carnage was the result of honest confusion--while it may
lessen his personal responsibility, doesn't erase the specter of our
nation's leaders officially condoning wanton murder. It's they who came
to define the countryside of Vietnam as a killing field in which Kerrey's
team did what it thought it was ordered to do.
Kerrey, then 25, and other young warriors were deliberately lied to by
leaders who knew better. The terror of that night is the work of the four
Presidents who insisted the United States had an obligation in Vietnam to fill the blood-stained shoes of a defeated French colonialism.
None of the four who ordered this mayhem unleashed upon a distant land
ever established that the war served a serious national security purpose.
Dwight D. Eisenhower created a puppet government in South Vietnam in
1954, flying in Ngo Dinh Diem--an autocratic Vietnamese exile safely
cloistered in a New Jersey Catholic seminary--to rule an overwhelmingly
Buddhist country. Diem followed US orders in preventing the election
called for in the Geneva Accords that would have unified Vietnam, an
election Eisenhower predicted our designated enemy, Ho Chi Minh, would
have won overwhelmingly. But while Eisenhower left the CIA to create an
artificial nation out of South Vietnam, this former World War II general
drew the line at committing US troops.
John F. Kennedy ignored that caution, sending to Vietnam a small
contingent disguised as flood control advisors. But when his ambassador
approved the assassination of Diem in 1963 and installed an even more
compliant puppet, Kennedy indelibly committed this country to the path of
That was the path pursued vociferously by Lyndon B. Johnson, who in
taped conversations with advisers stated he could find no legitimate
purpose for being in Vietnam, other than to ward off right-wing hawkish
attacks in the upcoming 1964 election. As Johnson told his national
security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, "I don't think it's worth fighting
for." Yet he was convinced he would lose to Barry Goldwater if he
appeared soft on communism.
Goldwater was right when he later charged that LBJ lied to Congress
about an attack on US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, to
secure what Johnson interpreted as a declaration of war. In turn, he
dispatched half a million US troops, including young Kerrey, and
unleashed history's most intense air war, with more explosives dropped on
the thin strip of Vietnam than had been used in all of World War II,
leaving 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 American dead.
Richard Nixon, who got elected pledging to quickly end this war he
knew to be without legitimate purpose, instead escalated it to even more
nightmarish proportions, including the destruction of once-peaceful and
neutral Cambodia, with another million dead.
Those Presidents bear responsibility for deceiving good men like Bob
Kerrey into thinking they were serving their nation, when what the war
was always about was the poison of political ambition.
That is the admission of Nuremberg-level criminality lurking in the
1997 mea culpa of Robert McNamara, Johnson's Defense secretary, who
defined much of the South Vietnamese countryside as the legitimate target
of indiscriminate bombing.
The village Kerrey entered that fateful night fell into McNamara's
territory of the doomed; does it matter whether those illiterate peasants
ended up the hapless victims of McNamara's napalm or a Navy SEAL's
razor-sharp knife? The difference is that Kerrey was forced to witness
the pain while McNamara, the Ford Co. auto
executive-turned-deskside-warrior, was not. Yet McNamara already knew, as
he would later write, that "we were wrong, terribly wrong" and cited five
honorable opportunities that the US passed up to end the war by 1967,
two years before Kerrey visited upon that village such horror.
The true war criminal, yet to be brought to account by a nation that
presumes it can judge others throughout the world, was that steely
corporate bean-counter who took over the Pentagon and defined victory in
Vietnam by the number of Vietnamese dead, even if they were the children
and mothers slaughtered by Kerrey and his boys.