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?