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Death penalty delusions 

by Paul Lindholdt


I read John Webster's editorial in The Spokesman-Review on Timothy McVeigh ("Victims can't be ignored this time," June 12, 2001), and as is so often the case with Webster's work, which I have followed for years, the editorial bristled with anger and reasoning flaws. After reading that piece of work, I had a somber dream.


In it, a man stood alone on an island, negating John Donne's famous saying. The island was not moored or locked to solid land. It was a floating island, a mobile mass of vegetation, a caricature complete with palm tree. The island floated, roved aggressively, flailing at the mainland, banging into solid ground, bouncing and shuddering hard and backing away for another run.


The man banged with it. He was a caricature, all curled lip and sneer, no other features visible. He was tethered to the island, by choice or chance. A chain encircled his lower chest, and a stiff rod rode behind him, as if he were waving from a parade float. Beneath his feet, amid the shifting sands, letters appeared occasionally -- a "C" here, a "V" there -- but the whole word never came into view for him. The word "incivility" never materialized for him, although onlookers could read it plainly from their vista on dry land. The man's feet were wet, his lip curled; cartoon bubbles escaped his mouth.


Webster's editorial creeped me out -- more than the McVeigh execution did. That editorial exploited the raw opportunity of Timothy McVeigh's death to bale some political hay. Worse, it milked the tragedy of the Oklahoma City bombing victims, all 168 of them, by grandstanding about the righteousness of capital punishment.


Here is what Webster wrote: Those who oppose capital punishment are "talking heads" who "wring their hands: Poor Tim." Anyone who has reservations about the execution, in short, is a bleeding-heart liberal -- a stuffed shirt who voices deceitful views "Yadda, yadda. Boo hoo."


Those are words Webster actually used, schoolyard bully-fashion, to mock his readers who oppose the death penalty. And his mockery proves their point: barbarism begets barbarism. Mockery and incivility, his usual MO, constitute slipshod journalism. He works by decontextualizing and dumbing down a host of complex ethical arguments.


Webster ranted on. Those who would make a victim of McVeigh he calls "psychobabblers." Reasoning fallacies have been the stock-in-trade of Webster for years. Such psychobabblers "amuse themselves" with an "issue" like McVeigh's, he says. In fact there were no winners in the Oklahoma City bombing, its trial or conviction.


Ad hominem attacks and smears harden finally into Old Testament appeals. Defenders of McVeigh are "so-called moralists" who refuse to abide by justice based on eye for an eye. McVeigh's "unblinking" eyes "appeared to be coal black," i.e., pure evil, in the judgment of a witness Webster quotes.


Spokane readers have to laugh (or they're apt to cry) over Webster's sour compound of Biblical moralism, incivility, faulty logic and right-wing ideology. Such is the dominant editorial tone of The Spokesman-Review, and John Webster is setting that tone. Just as George W. Bush is out of step with the other leaders of the West, so is Webster out of touch with Spokane readers.


Death penalty opponents exercise "sickening compassion." They "carry on about picayune imperfections in trial procedure," and their lawyers practice "procedural razzmatazz," in Webster's construction. This is angry language from an angry man, and the sensibilities of Spokane readers suffer for that language daily, like so many lethal injections into our civic discourse.


For the record, I am personally ambivalent about capital punishment. My objections to Webster's editorials stand on journalistic, not moralistic, grounds. I believe community efforts to instill civility would be enhanced if Webster were held to the same high standards as his excellent staff writers.


The editorials of John Webster are battle hymns against justice and tolerance, fighting words designed to incite a regional civil war. Indeed he borrows imagery from that religious anthem, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Like a stern Puritan magistrate, he advocates "decisively for the sword of justice," as if every resolute Christian militant should follow suit.


The annual Gay Pride Parade recently took place and drew at least 500 marchers and supporters in Spokane, a larger crowd than ever before. Where were Webster and the other Spokesman-Review commentators? No editorial in our city's only daily newspaper heralded that landmark event, perhaps because Old Testament precepts so clearly inveigh against gays.

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