It may seem counterintuitive, but many families and friends of murder victims do not find closure in the death penalty. Their pain is revisited, not put to rest, with every legal appeal and news story about the case.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in May 2001, on the site WorkingForChange.com. The opinions, dated cultural references and poor grammar expressed here do not necessarily reflect the author’s current opinions, knowledge and journalistic skill. You can sign up for David’s current CNN column, The Wisdom Project, here: https://tinyletter.com/wisdomproject
With the execution of Timothy McVeigh postponed, we, as a nation, must endure our national nightmare a short while longer. Not until this man is dead will we have closure on the Oklahoma City tragedy and finally be free from the threat of intra-national terrorism. Once the federal government has taken McVeigh’s life, justice will prevail and we’ll collectively sleep better at night.
None of this is true, of course. The execution won’t deliver anything of real value. It won’t bring back the dead. It won’t end the sleepless nights nor the sorrow of those who survived the bombing or lost a loved one. It won’t be the clean, swift and fair punishment we seek. And it won’t make our country safer.
A recent front page headline of the San Francisco Chronicle following Attorney General Ashcroft’s delay of the execution described the one-month postponement as a “New blow for bomb survivors,” which assumes the only way to get past all those deaths is for the survivors to see one more. Newspaper editorials and columnists throughout the country are calling for McVeigh’s termination as the cure-all to the pain and fear caused by the ’95 bombing.
It may seem counterintuitive, but many families and friends of murder victims do not find closure in the death penalty. Their pain is revisited, not put to rest, with every legal appeal and news story about the case. And, after an execution, what comfort can the killer’s death offer to loved ones when they fall victim to the depression brought on by anniversaries of the crime, birthdays of those lost, or even the holidays? Healing requires time and determination and it does a disservice to second-hand victims of murder to assume that a lethal flip of the switch or injection will give them instant comfort.
The execution will also fail to deliver the justice it purports to. For those calling for McVeigh’s blood, no method of execution could ever match the brutality of his crime and no amount of pain he suffers would equal the pain he caused. As the country’s most famous Death Row resident himself has pointed out, 168 to 1 does not satisfy the pro-death penalty mathematical mantra of “an eye for eye.”
Most Americans favor capital punishment if the system is swift and fair. But as long as there are prejudicial jurors, incompetent lawyers for impoverished defendants, and human error in the criminal system — and there will always be these three disparities — the state’s taking of a life will never be the punishment its supporters want it to be. (Gov. George Ryan (R-Ill.) learned this lesson first-hand when he was forced to put a moratorium on the death penalty in his state after 13 innocent men were rescued from Illinois Death Row.)
In McVeigh’s own case there is room to doubt the veracity of his lone wolf confession and a mountain of testimony about co-conspirators (one of the subjects of the documents the FBI didn’t turn over). But just because we’re eager for someone to blame, doesn’t mean that justice has been served. If McVeigh had help from others, those people are still out there, walking through our neighborhoods, and this execution doesn’t make us safe from them.
If it doesn’t bring peace of mind, justice or national safety, what will the execution of Timothy McVeigh bring?
It will succeed in crowning McVeigh the martyr he endeavors to be. He considers the federal government his enemy. He attacked his enemy and now awaits retaliation. As far as McVeigh’s own twisted, hate-fueled intentions go, this is the best possible outcome for his cause.
And while the execution of this 33-year-old will not make our country safer, it could have unintended consequences. There is no shortage of bellicose zealots who share McVeigh’s loathing of the American government. Somewhere in this saga we’ve forgotten that the Oklahoma City bombing was a calculated response to the deaths in Waco and Ruby Ridge. If what happened at the Koresh compound was a lightening rod for anti-American terrorism by our own citizenry, then McVeigh’s execution by the federal government (the first federal execution in 38 years) will be another red flag anniversary date on the calendar when we may want to think twice about entering a federal building.
I’ve been to the Oklahoma City memorial. It’s a moving and powerful testimony to the loss suffered there and the necessity of overcoming tragedy through personal strength and understanding. Killing McVeigh won’t fill any of the memorial’s empty chairs that represent the victims. It won’t end this national nightmare. And it certainly won’t end the cycle of killings both sides perpetuate. To think of this execution as a judicial bandage that will protect and strengthen the nation gives us a false sense of security about our wounds and will, in fact, prevent us from properly healing from the tragedy.
If there is common ground among supporters and opponents to the death penalty, it is that nearly everyone agrees that pre-meditated, planned and rationalized murder is one of the worst crimes anyone could commit. Sadly, McVeigh didn’t let that get in the way of his message, and neither will the federal government.