President George W. Bush, brow furrowed, announced the death of Timothy McVeigh and pronounced a victory for "gestes." To me it was an obscene moment.
George W., presuming to instruct us regarding justice (sorry, that's "gestes")? Here is a man who draws no distinctions between the Timothy McVeighs and the Carla Fay Tuckers, no distinctions between mass murderers and adults who have the mental capacity of 6-year-olds. Justice to George W. means nothing more, or so it would seem, than process. A verdict was duly reported, sentence made, appeals heard and, well, that's that, bring on the syringe, rope or current.
Plato would have Socrates instruct our president on the subject. Or maybe he wouldn't. Why bother. Dubya's politics suffer from a moral vacuum at the center. Over the past couple of decades, Texas has played the executioner's song more often than all but a couple of states combined, and Governor Bush certainly did his part.
As for me, like many who abhor Timothy McVeigh and what he did, I remain most troubled by our cultural acceptance, even approval (in some quarters, such as the editorial room of The Spokesman-Review, even delight) of governmental action that diminishes not only the humanity of the person to be executed but all of us who lend legitimacy to the act. The administration of this highest punishment makes us all a little meaner, a little less likely to turn the other cheek.
At the very least might we express ambivalence and commit to better sort through our ongoing moral quandary? That would be a start.
As a body politic, we have relied from time to time on any number of justifications, none of which would seem to hold up under scrutiny.
The death penalty deters crime, there's that one. My late grandmother used to tell us stories of how she and her siblings were made to watch narrated hangings in Oklahoma Territory: "See where crime gets you, Anna?"
Well, it turns out no one is deterred by the death penalty. Does anyone really believe that by doing in Timothy McVeigh we will "send a message" to the next terrorist? Does anyone really believe that future Ted Bundy's really learned a lesson?
Okay, so deterrence can work as the justification. What about vengeance? Even most Americans would seem to reject that one; although from time to time we haul it out as if we want to sneak a look. Why, for example, were relatives and others invited to watch Timothy McVeigh die? Closure -- that was the word officialdom used to justify what amounted to a ghoulish act.
What made the viewing worse still was our Attorney General's insistence that it proceed essentially as a private matter. Murder can never be considered a private matter, and never is except in cases involving the Mafia, and even then, if we can catch the hit men we put them on trial for murder as determined by the state. The point being, by treating McVeigh's execution as a private matter, Attorney General Ashcroft did violence to the very idea of legitimate execution, which relies for its legitimacy on a crime against the public.
From deterrence and vengeance we sometimes make our way to pluralism; that is, America is a most diverse country and therefore we can't rely on norms and conventions to the same extent that do more homogeneous countries. This argument simply is bunk. London today is a city that has been described as a town where some people speak English. Or perhaps they mean that in Texas the threat of execution is held out to keep the Hispanics in line -- isn't this a good way to deal with diversity?
Strangely enough, many of those who hold in their hearts that America is a Christian nation, or at least founded on Christian belief, are those most wedded to the death penalty. Yet even the Old Testament tells us, "Thou shalt not kill." And Jesus's teachings are diametrically opposed to the old notion of an eye for an eye.
When all the justifications have been critiqued and found lacking, we are forced, kicking and screaming in some parts of the nation, to admit one thing: When it comes to executions, who you are would seem to matter more than what you did.
For the most part, the death penalty seldom is given to the wealthy, those who can pay for expensive legal teams. And minorities populate death rows to a degree way out of whack with their actual representation in society. Even conviction stands a long shot in cases with professional counsel, as proven in the O.J. Simpson trial. After conviction, if the judge has discretion, it is the poor and underrepresented who are most at risk.
There is, of course, the question of cost. Why pay to keep a monster like McVeigh alive? And to this I'd have to say, this response is morally irrelevant, and practically relevant only to the extent we need to consider living conditions. For example, I'd take something so simple as television away from not only the McVeighs of this world but all convicted violent felons. Nor would I spend much on gyms. In other words, we can argue over what constitutes humane incarceration, but we shouldn't rely on economics to make the decisions for us.
On a personal level, I can support the death penalty in only one kind of situation: where it is the only reasonable way to ensure self-defense. Accordingly, I supported the execution of Ted Bundy. Here was a man who had, at least twice, been captured, escaped and murdered again. He was not only a man who had killed and killed again, he was a man who was adept at escape and once on the loose represented a dire threat. He had to be "put down," for he had, by his deeds, moved beyond the power of the state to ensure public safety. He had left the government no other choice.
But McVeigh? I really doubt he was ever going to see the light of day again. I believe that he would have been punished far more had he been forced to live out his life, and at some time in the future, in the dark of night, confront himself for the monster he was. Killing him, in many ways, gave him the easy way out.
But even had he never seriously reflected on his evil, even had he scorned his victims, even had he cost us lots of tax dollars over a lifetime of incarceration, I remain in the camp that argues against killing him -- not for his sake so much as for ours.