A Broadcast Execution Is Just What Timothy McVeigh Wants

13 April 2001

By Stentor Danielson

Timothy McVeigh, the author of the 1995 bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City, is preparing to die. McVeigh requested an execution and waived his right to appeal in order to speed his final moments, which are scheduled for May 16. He hopes that his execution will make him a martyr in his quest to get back at the government.

With so many victims and such wide media coverage of the bombing and trial, there has been considerable interest in the first federal execution in 38 years. Last week, Attorney General John Ashcroft approved plans to allow the victims and the families of the 168 who lost their lives in the bombing to watch the execution over closed-circuit television. Entertainment Network Inc., the company that runs such websites as VoyeurDorm.com, sued the federal government for the right to broadcast the execution over the Internet on a pay-per-view basis. Ashcroft has refuted the company's claim, citing laws that allow media witnesses but bar any sound or video recording devices at an execution. Ashcroft is right to oppose an action that would only validate McVeigh's plan, for the satisfaction of cyber-sadists.

McVeigh planned to die from the beginning. Defense psychiatrist John Smith reported that McVeigh expected to be killed in a shootout after the bombing, rather than being arrested. He called his plan a "state-assisted suicide."

As his death draws near, McVeigh is busily planning his martyrdom. He has already chosen suitably memorable last words: "I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul," from William Ernest Henley's 19th Century poem "Invictus."

To execute McVeigh is, therefore, to help him in his plan. Death may not be pleasant, but it is little punishment to end the life of someone who did not plan on living, someone who, in fact, wants to die. In this sense, justice is not being served by execution in the first place. Justice would be to thwart McVeigh's plans, as he thwarted those of the 168 people who planned to go on living.

The execution is set now, so it is no longer possible to condemn McVeigh to a long life of frustration and guilt. But we can still thwart a key component of his plan: his image. McVeigh intended to be a martyr, a symbol for those who stood up to our government. He created one spectacle in order to achieve that. To broadcast his execution would create a second spectacle for McVeigh to bring his cause to the fore and become a subversive hero.

Although few people admire McVeigh in the way he would like, his position as a prominent anti-establishment figure is already strong. This explains a letter he received in prison from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA asked McVeigh to adopt a vegan diet (one with no meat, dairy or eggs), doubtless hoping that an endorsement by such a celebrity would generate publicity for their struggle against the consumption of animal products. McVeigh declined, adding, "I suggest hitting [the Unabomber] Ted Kaczynski up for his opinions on the subject."

To make McVeigh's execution public would create just the kind of spectacle he needs to secure his place in history. He would die knowing that he stuck it to "the man," that he so riled our society that we had to come for him with our most extreme punishment.

In February, McVeigh asked for his execution to be broadcast. It cannot be made clearer than in this request that broadcasting would make the government carry out McVeigh's will.

To broadcast McVeigh's execution would also validate, and surpass, the callousness toward life that he displays in calling the Oklahoma City deaths "collateral damage." This argument has been brought against executions in general so often that it is a clichˇ - don't punish killing with killing, or revenge with revenge. But it takes on new meaning in the case of a public execution. It would approve of our use of death not just as a necessary evil, but also for enjoyment.

A parallel is often drawn to Roman gladiatorial matches. But there was sport, gruesome as losing may have been, to gladiatorial competition. Gladiators' popularity came from the thrill of the fight as much as the death at the end. Execution is purely about death. A person watches an execution because he or she enjoys seeing another die. While some people claim a need for "closure," I have little doubt that the main force motivating those who would tune in to Entertainment Networks' broadcast would be the sick fascination that we label with the properly pejorative term "sadism."

At its most justifiable, execution is a clinical operation, undertaken by the state to eliminate a dangerous element. This purpose is undermined when executions become public entertainment, carried out to please audiences rather than to deal with crime. The copycat nature of school shootings after Columbine should alert us to the dangers of allowing a person to buy a spot on the national stage with others' lives.

I don't begrudge the 200-plus observers their closed-circuit television, if only because it would be unfair to select only eight (the number of witnesses allowed in the execution chamber) from their number. But I do wonder at the psychological alignment that makes them expect to feel their pain eased by seeing another person suffer, by dragging the pain back to the forefront six years after the bomb went off. Seeing someone die, even in a relatively humane way like lethal injection, is a traumatic experience. Many of the witnesses will need additional counseling -- from family, friends, clergy or professionals -- after McVeigh's death.

I admire the people who were eligible to watch the execution and declined. Their refusal makes a statement that pain does not make pain right, and that McVeigh cannot control their lives.

The United States must not give in to McVeigh. A quiet execution viewed only by those directly affected by the bombing would avoid making McVeigh the martyr he wants to become. His crime was his plan to get back at the government for Waco. Wouldn't the greatest justice be to see that plan foiled at last?

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