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Timothy McVeigh

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For all the fun and frolic that the nation’s media elite was enjoying over the now-delayed execution of Timothy McVeigh, there remains a nagging question in their minds about the Oklahoma City bombing that McVeigh now openly admits having committed: Why doesn’t this terrorist feel any guilt?

The question permeates the best-selling examination of the bombing and the bomber , American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing, by Buffalo News reporters Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck, and it pops up at the end of the series of letters that McVeigh wrote to yet another journalist, Phil Bacharach, published in Esquire this month. (RealAudio interview with Bacharach, 30 min.)

Indeed, in both the book and the letters, McVeigh, guilty of the largest mass murder in American history, is also probably the cheeriest murderer in all of history. In the letters to Mr. Bacharach, he is mainly concerned about the movies and TV shows he’s been watching (his favorite seems to be Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” but he didn’t much care for “Seinfeld”).

As for the bombing, he shows no remorse, regret or guilt whatsoever; he’s referred to the day care center and the children he slaughtered in the Murrah Building as “collateral damage” and compared all his innocent victims to the imaginary bad guys of “Star Wars.” As Mr. Bacharach himself concludes his article, “It is beyond me to reconcile the Timothy McVeigh who murdered 168 people with the writer of these letters…. I do know one thing: In the written word, at least, he has not a whisper of conscience.”

Is that because McVeigh is a “psychopath” or “sociopath” or fits some other psycho-babble label invented to explain the unexplainable? Probably not. The psychiatrist who studied him in prison doesn’t use such terms but has no better explanation himself. Moreover, McVeigh has always claimed he didn’t know the day care center was there, that it wasn’t visible from the street, that he would have picked another target if he had known, that he tried to avoid harming non-government employees.

Most of that, of course, doesn’t help. Even if the day care center hadn’t been there, the bombing was still more brutal than most people could ever imagine committing. And McVeigh really didn’t try very hard to avoid “innocent” casualties. Any federal building is full of people who have nothing to do with the federal government McVeigh hates so much—taxpayers, crime victims, veterans, maybe even men like DavidKoresh of Waco or Randy Weaver of Ruby Ridge trying to extract a little justice for themselves. It didn’t matter very much to Timothy McVeigh that he blew these kinds of good people up along with the bureaucrats, and it doesn’t matter to him now.

But the reason it doesn’t matter to him ought to be pretty clear from what he tells Mr. Michel and Mr. Herbeck and from what he’s written to Fox News reporter Rita Cosby. Timothy McVeigh thinks of himself as a soldier fighting a war, and he has no more conscientious reaction to killing civilians, government employees or not, than Allied airplane pilots had in World War II when they firebombed Japanese and German civilians in Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden, or American pilots when they hit civilian targets in Vietnam, Iraq and Serbia.

“Bombing the Murrah Federal Building,” McVeigh writes to Miss Cosby, “was morally and strategically equivalent to the U.S. hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq or other nations. Based on observations of the policies of my own government, I viewed this action as an acceptable option. From this perspective, what occurred in Oklahoma City was no different than what Americans rain on the heads of others all the time and, subsequently, my mindset was and is one of clinical detachment.”

“Clinical detachment” may not be an accurate description of how many American soldiers and airmen regard the killing of civilians, but it’s probably true that most who have killed civilians don’t agonize about it very much, and some (like those who to this day celebrate Arthur “Bomber” Harris, who led the murderous destruction of Dresden from the air two months before the end of World War II in Europe) go to their graves proud of it.

To understand why McVeigh feels no guilt for what he did is not to say that he shouldn’t. What he did was indeed an act of mass murder that deserves death, if not a good deal more than death. But the point he tried to make in his act of murder remains a serious one—that in modern warfare as practiced routinely and happily by the United States and other modern democracies and increasingly in law enforcement, civilian targets and civilian casualties are acceptable—if not often deliberately targeted—casualties. After we kill Timothy McVeigh, Americans should think hard about what he was trying to tell us.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Timothy McVeigh 
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The social event of the year seems to be the impending execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh on May 16. Since McVeigh has admitted his guilt and abandoned his claims to further legal appeals that might have kept him alive for several more years, there need be no worries about what DNA evidence could show 50 years from now or the constitutional niceties of dispatching him so quickly, a mere six years after his act of terror. Therefore, everyone can sit back and enjoy the show without guilt.

“Everyone” now includes some 250 privileged spectators who happen to be victims of the Oklahoma City blast or relatives of those murdered by it whom Attorney General John Ashcroft, as an act of mercy and wisdom, is allowing to watch the fun close up on closed circuit television. “I am going to do what I can to accommodate the needs of these families,” Mr. Ashcroft gravely intoned last week. “This is the first of the executions that the United States will have undertaken in this century and the first during the last 37 or so years. What we do here will obviously shape the process in some measure … and we have to be attentive to that.”

It’s touching that Mr. Ashcroft is so deeply sensitive to the historic significance of the occasion. From the solemn way he talks about it, you’d think holding the first federal execution of the new century was something like dedicating a battlefield memorial. But what is even more touching is his alertness to the “needs” of those slobbering to watch McVeigh die.

Of course, no one has any “need” to watch the execution at all, and the federal government does none of us a good turn by permitting something very much like a public execution to take place. It’s one thing, and entirely proper, for the victims and relatives of the victims to want and demand McVeigh’s execution. It’s quite another for them to insist on watching it themselves. The first is a matter of justice and morally rooted retribution. The second is merely catering to revenge, anger and hatred. As attorney general, Mr. Ashcroft should know better than to surrender to such passions, let alone insinuate that they will be models for other executions in the future.

In a famous essay against capital punishment, French philosopher Albert Camus told the story of his father, who went to see the execution of a notorious criminal in a Paris prison back in the days when murderers were dispatched on the guillotine. His father returned home sick at his stomach, from which Camus inferred that there is something about killing a human being that normal men find revolting. Camus’ point is well taken, though it doesn’t follow from it, as he claimed, that the death penalty should be abolished.

It doesn’t follow because the same nauseous reaction occurs when normal men watch other gruesome but morally justifiable and socially necessary proceedings. First year medical students often faint when they watch their first autopsy on a human corpse, but it doesn’t follow that autopsies or surgical operations should be banned. Most normal people would lose their breakfasts if they walked through a slaughterhouse, but only animal rights nuts would infer from the experience that killing animals for food and clothing should be outlawed.

Nevertheless, Camus’ point remains valid. Because an act is both just and necessary doesn’t mean it should be carried out in public or that normal men should be encouraged to watch it and either suppress their natural responses to it or be tempted to feel that those responses are somehow inappropriate. When the 250 witnesses to McVeigh’s lift­-off get a real gander of death deliberately administered, that’s exactly how they will tend to react to it.

The point here is not the cliché of death penalty opponents that killing McVeigh won’t bring back the victims he murdered. The point is that allowing some people to watch McVeigh be killed will do nothing to enhance or confirm the justness of his death, will certainly cheapen it and may serve to subvert the purpose of other deserved executions in the future.

It’s tempting to say–and probably it is widely believed–that no criminal in this country deserves death more than Timothy McVeigh, but that’s not true. The prisons are full of men who deserve death at least as much as McVeigh and maybe more so. But few of them are executed, because they are seldom hated as much as McVeigh and the authorities who are supposed to execute them lack the moral courage to carry out what justice and law demand. In the case of McVeigh, these same authorities have managed to turn what should have been a solemn act of law and justice into something resembling an afternoon soap opera.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Timothy McVeigh 
Sam Francis
About Sam Francis

Dr. Samuel T. Francis (1947-2005) was a leading paleoconservative columnist and intellectual theorist, serving as an adviser to the presidential campaigns of Patrick Buchanan and as an editorial writer, columnist, and editor at The Washington Times. He received the Distinguished Writing Award for Editorial Writing of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) in both 1989 and 1990, while being a finalist for the National Journalism Award (Walker Stone Prize) for Editorial Writing of the Scripps Howard Foundation those same years. His undergraduate education was at Johns Hopkins and he later earned his Ph.D. in modern history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

His books include The Soviet Strategy of Terror(1981, rev.1985), Power and History: The Political Thought of James Burnham (1984); Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism (1993); Revolution from the Middle: Essays and Articles from Chronicles, 1989–1996 (1997); and Thinkers of Our Time: James Burnham (1999). His published articles or reviews appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, National Review, The Spectator (London), The New American, The Occidental Quarterly, and Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, of which he was political editor and for which he wrote a monthly column, “Principalities and Powers.”