Killing McVeigh Gave Him Power

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Runup to the execution: A discomfited and slightly ridiculous solemnity overtook the anchors, as if they were trying to find the right face to put on things, the right tone under the circumstances (Funereal? Matter-of-fact? Huskily sympathetic? Sympathetic to whom, exactly?)

Eight a.m. (eastern time) approached. Computer generated animations showed the death house rooms and the leather gurney on which McVeigh would lie, to go to sleep, as if to have his appendix out — but not to wake. There was an atmosphere of subdued media circus — not satisfactorily macabre, however, since the entire performance was concealed behind a weird scrim of discretion and vagueness, none of us knowing exactly the moment when Timothy McVeigh died. His life winked out unobserved by the millions. This was capital punishment as a sort of Zen, the sound of one hand clapping.

On MSNBC, an ad for a collection of old songs began: "Don't let the moments of your life fade away." There is such a thing as cruel and unusual punishment; the concealed show in Terre Haute was unusual, but not exactly the work of Vlad the Impaler. Is there something preposterous about executing a mass murderer in such comfort? What if he'd been wheeled in a tumbrel through the streets of Oklahoma City, to be execrated and spat upon on the way to a guillotine on the spot where the Alfred P. Murrah Building once stood.

After it was anticlimactically over, the television people nattered on and on about whether McVeigh had been arrogant, or proud, or scared, at the moment he slipped so gently off. A witness named Gloria Chipman reported she saw "no remorse."

How many people around the globe died, equally hidden from the eyes of the world, at the same moment McVeigh died? How many were born? What's the arithmetic of what the world gained and what it lost in these teeming exchanges of life and death? Or, if that thought is too pointlessly metaphysical, consider the money: The U.S. spent about $100 million on trying Timothy McVeigh. I can think of ways in which the money might have been better used. But we are profligate with both our money and our lives.

In the midst of the Civil War, the South announced that any black man captured in a Federal uniform, fighting for the Union, would be put to death. Abraham Lincoln's response was harsh: For every Federal soldier executed, he said, a Confederate soldier would be put to death.

But Lincoln's anger subsided, and he repealed the policy.

"Blood cannot restore blood," he remarked. "And Government cannot act for revenge."

Timothy McVeigh is dead. If it is true that blood cannot restore blood — not one of the 168 people killed at the Murrah Building rose from the dead on Monday morning — and if it is true that Government cannot, or should not, act for revenge... then what exactly were we doing, as a people, out there on the banks of the Wabash?

Do you feel better, now that McVeigh is dead? Do the survivors feel better? Do they feel "closure?" Relief? Peace? A "completion of justice," as one of the survivors, Kathleen Treanor, said?

Perhaps the answer to all of those questions is yes. Kathleen Treanor lost a daughter, a father-in-law and mother-in-law in the explosion, and has paid, in the hardest way, for the right to her view of McVeigh's death.

And yet — forgive me — I suspect that feelings, mere feelings, set a standard that is too low, or anyway that is evanescent and unreliable. "Closure" is nonsense, a con that is retailed by "grief counselors." Feelings are not enough. They wear off, as drugs wear off. Justice has something to do with feelings, I guess. But it needs sturdier reasons.

There are colder, calmer, more intelligent calculations to be made about what is gained and what is lost in a business like the execution of Timothy McVeigh. I think killing him gives us, on the whole, a loss. Killing him gave him power and attention he should have been denied.

And anyway, Lincoln was right. Blood cannot restore blood.