Regarding the imposed demise of Timothy McVeigh, and the gnashing of teeth following said demise, a few thoughts:
Much noise ensued from Amnesty International, one of those organizations which consist three-quarters of some good idea, and one-quarter of excessive satisfaction with themselves for espousing the good idea. The execution, said Amnesty, was barbaric, cruel and unusual, and represented ‘a triumph of revenge over justice.’
I’m not sure what Amnesty is talking about, a condition I suspect that I share with the organization itself.
Cruel? An unpleasant fact about punishment is that if it is not disagreeable to the recipient, it isn’t punishment. If punishment were fun, we’d all be criminals. Neither would enjoyable punishment be much of a discouragement to those inclined to criminality. When a ten-year-old is not permitted to go to the movies because he destroyed the furniture while playing Tarzan, he is assuredly miserable. That’s the point.
A reasonable question is how unpleasant a punishment fits a given crime. Life imprisonment for running a red light might be excessive. A fine of a couple of hundred dollars isn’t. Killing 168 people, was it, out of disapproval of some abstract behavior of which they probably weren’t guilty would seem to be a rather serious crime. If society did to him 1/168th of what he did to others, one might easily argue that society was being lenient.
The alternative, putting him in prison for life, to many, including McVeigh, might seem more cruel than killing him. I’ve been in prisons. They are hideously dull. For forty years you eat the same mediocre food, live in the same linoleum-floored, often windowless room, in company over which you have no control, with nothing to do.
Perhaps we should have released him, so as to avoid being cruel.
The phrase ‘cruel and unusual’ is of course constitutional phraseology, intended at least to imply illegality. Remember that those who wrote the Constitution were accustomed to a more robust standard of cruelty in Europe. In Elizabethan England, criminals were not infrequently hanged until unconscious, revived, castrated, disemboweled, and drawn and quartered. This latter involved attaching four horses to their arms and legs, and encouraging the horses to go to different places. There was among the authors of the Constitution no opposition to capital punishment of which I am aware.
A reasonable objection to the death penalty is that sometimes it is misplaced. Men have been executed, or scheduled for execution, who turned out not to have been guilty. One might point out that there was no doubt of guilt in McVeigh’s case. On the other hand, if there were any reasonable doubt in any killer’s case, he shouldn’t be either in prison or executed. Maybe we should reserve life imprisonment for cases in which an unreasonable doubt existed.
Amnesty spoke of ‘revenge over justice.’ I’m not entirely sure why revenge is thought to be an unworthy motive, provided that guilt has been established, and that the revenge exacted does not exceed the gravity of the crime. It would be interesting to see how a member of Amnesty would react if his daughter, say, were floridly butchered by some product of an unhappy childhood.
But, I wonder, what precisely would be justice for someone who has deliberately killed well over a hundred people he didn’t know, who had done nothing to him? Would, say, several points on his driver’s license be fitting? A fine? Community service?
Behind the idea of justice is the notion of equity. In less civilized times, the standard in many places approximated an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, not a life for a tooth, or a penny for an eye. Now the penalty would be some amount of jail time, or a hefty settlement in a civil suit. Still, the idea of proportionality is there.
What is proportional to 168 dead? How little weight are we willing to attach to the premeditated murder of a large number of children?
I wonder whether Amnesty would like to state that the executions following the Nuremberg trials were unjustified, or that the Israelis are barbaric for having executed Adolph Eichmann?
Personally I don’t care about the death penalty one way or the other. Putting McVeigh in 23-1 lockdown for the rest of his life would have gotten my vote. Yet there is something unsavory in Amnesty’s apparently complete lack of concern for what the zealous little monster did to others. The step from being against evil to being in love with oneself is a short one.