Give McVeigh Oblivion, Not Death

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In the matter of Timothy McVeigh, we have a rare convergence of two opposites in the American mind: the closure-vultures and the hangmen.

There's one side of us that likes to rush "grief counselors" to the scene when something awful happens. A school bus goes into a ravine, and by the time it's on the six o'clock news, someone is talking about "closure," as if grief, even the deepest, could be abolished in the way that kitchen cleansers banish stubborn stains and restore the surface of a countertop, or of a life, to the pristine state that existed before the spill. "Survivors" must "get on with their lives."

Such vocabularies arise naturally among people accustomed to over-the-counter solutions, to miracle painkillers — people taught from childhood to half-expect that a fast-acting product can fix even, say, the death of a child. "Had a tragedy? Want closure? Try..."

In an opposite corner of the American psyche lives the punitive impulse that eats red meat and pursues an unforgiving agenda drawn up in the days when an eye was an eye and a tooth was a tooth, and God was an angry white male.

Now paleo-trogs and closure-vultures, in a rare joint appearance, tell us: Let's execute McVeigh in order to achieve closure.

Not that the closure tribe, if asked the question directly, supports capital punishment or wants to execute McVeigh. Heaven forbid. But in this case, the closure dynamic is playing for the executioner's team.

America was built on the idea of closure, back in the days before closure became merely another tool of self-indulgence. Close down the old life in the Old World and make a new one in the New World. Closure is essential for a mobile society, just as divorce is.

But I'd say there has gotten to be a little too much closure in American life. Closure becomes thoughtlessness, anesthesia, the shutdown of a necessary struggle. The creature that is happy as a clam remains a clam. We learn by suffering — by the terrible attention that suffering commands. (We learn in other ways, too, of course — by playing games, for example.) If an animal is comfortable, it feels no need to learn. A certain amount of the violence and stupidity of American life arises — not from poverty, as pious sociology says — but from the opposite side, from an overconvenienced clam-culture that in its privilege and its almost pathological intolerance of pain, has lost the capacity to learn self-control from suffering and grief.

What is the point of the suffering that has arisen from Oklahoma City? Surely the tragedy is compounded if the point, after all, is merely something as unimportant and meaningless as McVeigh, something as unworthy as the question of how and when the nonentity is to die.

I am against executing McVeigh because I think that such an outcome — a gaudy culmination, a carnival enacted in a shabby media culture — is unworthy of the suffering. It dishonors the suffering by parading it in a stupid and cheap arena. Capital punishment itself becomes a form of indiscipline.

Killing McVeigh teaches us nothing. It doesn't teach him a lesson. It doesn't teach other terrorists a lesson — other than repeating the truth, often confirmed, that if you do something spectacularly horrible, it will make you famous.

There are some persuasive arguments in favor of the death penalty, and in favor of executing McVeigh. I have argued in favor of the death penalty in the past, although I have changed my view. Many whose family members died in Oklahoma City want McVeigh killed, and to that, one can only say, "Well, I understand."

But it would be better, I think, if we could forget McVeigh — if we could execute him in a truer way, a metaphysical way, by forgetting him. He made himself part of the permanent, ambient evil of the world, and that's his problem.

Our business, as always, is not, for God's sake, to make ourselves feel better, as if feeling better were the point of life, but rather, to accept what has happened, and to try to learn something from it.

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