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Timothy McVeigh and capital punishment

By W. James Antle III
web posted May 14, 2001

Timothy McVeigh was thought to be the poster child for capital punishment. The perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 innocent people, children in daycare among them, and remorselessly referred to these deaths as "collateral damage," was perhaps the most lethal domestic terrorist in American history. To find a criminal whose guilt was more obvious and who the public was more overwhelmingly in favor of putting to death, one would have to go all the way back to Adolf Hitler.

Timothy McVeighNevertheless, the government so thoroughly bungled its handling of McVeigh as to actually undermine the case for capital punishment. The FBI's failure to fully comply with the appropriate disclosure requirements, prompting Attorney General John Ashcroft to delay McVeigh's execution by one month and order an investigation, supports the argument that the death penalty cannot be administered fairly. The Justice Department's earlier decision to allow 250 people who either survived the bombing or are relatives of those who did not watch McVeigh be put to death on close-circuit television gives credence to the argument that capital punishment is nothing more than revenge.

To not come forward with all the documentation relevant to McVeigh's case, even if it has no bearing on his guilt or innocence, inevitably taints an important trial with a life-or-death result for the defendant. Even conservatives have questioned whether government should be trusted with the power to execute, given such bureaucratic screw-ups and its ineffectiveness in so many other areas. This was the basis of Carl Cannon's "Conservative Case Against Capital Punishment" published not so long ago in National Review. If we are to continue to execute those whose crimes warrant such a penalty, the process by which this is done must be fairly and effectively administered.

To allow someone like McVeigh to live would not advance justice. Rather, it would allow a man guilty of mass murder the opportunity to promote himself, form relationships, continue to correspond with family and friends, learn and enjoy any number of life's blessings he denied more than 100 of his victims. It would leave him better off than those he murdered and as a living reminder to their families and the bombing's survivors. But the lives of people like McVeigh are precisely what would be spared in the event of a moratorium on federal executions.

However, if a highly publicized case like this can be fraught with irregularities, mistakes and examples of bureaucratic incompetence, how can the system work for lesser-known offenders charged with less infamous crimes? This seems to support the contention that capital punishment may put those who are poor, or minority, or without adequate legal counsel, unfairly at risk.

It was also a mistake to transform this event into a semi-public execution. The moral logic of the death penalty is that proportionality is central to the administration of justice. Each crime must be punished proportionate to the offense, with the severity of the punishment meted out commensurate to the severity of the crime. Death penalty opponents mock the idea of "killing people to show that killing people is wrong," yet we do not affirm the value of innocent human life by punishing those who take it with the same penalties we would impose for lesser crimes. Viewed in this fashion, the execution of Timothy McVeigh is a just action undertaken in proportion to the heinous crime he committed. To take this execution, and turn it into an event to bring victims and their families to "closure" - and then defend this action as a victory for "victims' rights" - makes a spectacle and a mockery of justice.

Public executions take capital punishment from the realm of justice and place it squarely in the category of revenge. The motivation ceases to be imposing a punishment that reflects the severity of the crime. It then becomes an event that caters to public emotions, powerful emotions such as anger and hatred at that. Such emotions are not conducive to impartial justice. The difference between a solemnly conducting an execution and conducting it publicly is no less significant than the difference between putting a criminal in prison versus locking him in a cage in the center of town where passersby may hurl tomatoes at him.

Columnist Samuel Francis noted that there are many murderers who should be executed, but few evoke the hatred that people have for McVeigh. Political elites have failed to exhibit the moral courage necessary to punish other murderers according to their deeds as justice would dictate, but instead single out those who are particularly hated. This hardly is a sound basis for a system of justice.

Capital punishment in principle is a just punishment for those who cruelly and deliberately snuff out innocent human life without remorse. It is proportionate to the offense, it prevents the perpetrator from killing again and, if administered reliably, has arguable deterrent benefits. Yet the McVeigh case raises the possibility that American capital punishment in practice may be degenerating into what death penalty opponents claim it to be: Unfair, arbitrary and prone to error. President George W. Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft are long-standing supporters of capital punishment who have argued for the fairness of our criminal justice system. The burden on them is to demonstrate that this is so, and unless they wish to see a change in policy they must do a better job.

W. James Antle III is a former researcher for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm. You can e-mail comments to wjantle@enterstageright.com.

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