Covenant With Death

Covenant With Death

The death penalty needs to be thought through by liberals, and its acceptance or rejection cannot be á la carte.


Picture a grown-up discussion in Iceland, Portugal, Italy or Poland. The question is–what to do with a confessed mass murderer? The argument veers between different kinds of therapy and incarceration, and then somebody says: Let's kill him by playing doctors, and invite some people over to watch it on TV! All eyes roll toward the ceiling.

A few years ago, I took the tour that the federal government offers visitors to its facility in Terre Haute, Indiana (see "Minority Report," May 8, 1995). This rather depressed little burg, once celebrated as the birthplace of the mighty and humane Eugene Victor Debs, had become the lucky recipient of a state subsidy for a new death row. Local boosters talked vaguely of how this might bring much-needed jobs to the area. Now I notice that there has been a recent and well-publicized shot in the arm for the town's T-shirt and souvenir concessionaires. At the time, I remember wondering what I was being reminded of. It came back to me this week. In The Adventures of Augie March, old man Einhorn warns Bellow's young protagonist that the state buys beans in bulk, and well in advance, knowing that there are some people who can be counted upon to get themselves behind bars and come and eat them.

In something like the same way, if the federal government decides to join the death-penalty racket, it will sooner or later find someone to execute. And it can also count on a number of liberals, all troubled and conscientious, to bite their lips and say that perhaps just this once wouldn't matter. "Poster boy for capital punishment" is the lazy phrase that has been employed by several columnists and commentators to describe Timothy McVeigh, as they agonize about whether the state should have the power of life and death, not to mention the right to reinforce this power by means of compassionately conservative closed-circuit TV.

If McVeigh is the poster boy for anything, he is the poster boy for the feral American right. He is opposed to "big government," yet–in his most callous and disgusting phrase–he regards dead children as "collateral damage." (Where on earth did he pick up that obscene phrase, I wonder?) He is also the poster boy for a cult of death and revenge, which takes its tune from the state murder of civilians at Waco, Texas. His last request, or the closing point in his demented program, is a demand that society put him to death without further reflection. Now we can see the same Justice Department bureaucracy that brought us Waco, as it scurries to attend to every detail of the mass murderer's wish.

The McVeigh case makes absolutely no difference at all to the arguments against the death penalty. It is not news that we have depraved people among us; nor is it news that they like to taunt society with their combination of relish and indifference. The number of victims, the heinousness of the offense–these considerations do not and should not weigh in the balance. Ted Bundy could have been snuffed for any one of his crimes, or for none of them. Many people sentenced to death have doubtless been executed for crimes they might have committed but for which they were not convicted. Many living prisoners have committed appalling and evil crimes for which any sentient person would want them to die. And many murderers have been reprieved because they were condemned for the wrong murder, quite probably just as many as have been executed for the only murder they did not in fact commit. People sternly say that at least there is no doubt about McVeigh. Does that then nullify all their previous doubts on the death penalty?

The case can be put quite simply and intelligibly. It is not possible to be in favor of the death penalty à la carte. The state either claims the right to impose this doom or it does not. Nobody will ever be in possession of enough information to determine which convict is deserving of death and which one is not. (This is what people mean when they say rather falteringly that nobody can be "god" in such matters.) Subjective considerations about atrocity and wickedness are what the judicial system exists to prevent, or at the very least to contain. The argument about "closure" and satisfaction for relatives and friends is a sinister and bogus appeal to the irrational; the same argument would support a closed-circuit torture session for the condemned man, and it would not startle me in the least if McVeigh demanded this, too, as his right and his preferred means of checking out. Would we then defer to his expressed wishes and enact a scene of cathartic cruelty?

All but the most extreme pacifists will admit of a case where it might be immoral or amoral not to use force, if not to defend oneself then to defend others. All but the most fanatical opponents of abortion will allow for certain customary "exceptions," too well known to be rehearsed by me. The most committed vegetarian may still employ a leather belt if the consequence of not doing so is that his pants fall around his knees. But capital punishment is an either/or proposition, as every law-bound society except the United States has come to realize. The state, even in time of war, may not lawfully kill its prisoners. (And the populace has no business demanding that it should.) There are even some good utilitarian arguments for this. We don't know enough about serial killers and mass murderers, and, humanely treated, these very perpetrators might live to yield useful information. The possibility of rehabilitation cannot be excluded; it occurred even with some of the Nuremberg defendants and can also be accompanied by some worthwhile disclosures.

The utilitarian argument ought not to be the deciding one, though it's interesting to notice that even the basest version of it will vanquish the emotional nonsense put forward by Attorney General Ashcroft and his closed-circuit constituency. Ashcroft found the idea of further interviews and statements from the Terre Haute death cell too repulsive to contemplate. But as I write, and in full view of a mass audience, McVeigh is orchestrating the last chords of a fascistic anthem and hypnotically persuading the whole dignified force of law and order to join in.

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