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The Death Of Timothy McVeigh

When Timothy McVeigh was executed, more American children had "personal knowledge" of a state-sponsored killing than the children of any previous generation. The only other state-sponsored killing that remotely rivals the execution of McVeigh was the execution of Bruno Hauptmann who was convicted of the murder of Charles Lindbergh's infant son. However, in 1936, a family was lucky to have a radio. In 2001, the average family has a radio in both cars and one in most rooms of their home. In 1936, one might catch the "latest" (less-than-a-month-old) news at their local movie theater. Between radio, television, cell phones, pagers, and the Internet, the execution of Timothy McVeigh was a "real-time" drama for almost every American child.

One of the most angst-filled mantras of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was "what do we tell the children?" This question was answered by dozens of psychologists, counselors, and even members of Congress who painstakingly told us how to explain consensual sex to our children. On the other hand, the question "what do we tell the children about the killing of Timothy McVeigh" has seldom even been asked. This is understandable if one knows the cultural history of America. We have always had Puritanical values when it comes to sex. And we have always had Old Testament values when it comes to violence.

So, what, if anything, do we tell our 6-year-old nieces, our 8-year-old nephews, our 10-year-old daughters, and our 12-year-old sons about "our" killing Timothy McVeigh? If we simply explain it in terms of revenge, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," do we not risk the possibility of raising more Timothy McVeighs? If we explain it in terms of we should kill evil people, keep in mind that evil is "in the eye of the beholder" - which includes people like Timothy McVeigh.

If we explain that killing McVeigh was simply a matter of justice, then we must keep in mind that justice is determined and meted out by those who have power. This is why it has taken us almost 400 years to finally begin to punish white Americans for killing black Americans. This is also the reason that Senators Bob Kerrey's innocence was decided in the court of American public opinion and not by a jury of Vietnamese citizens. Justice, like evil, is indeed "in the eye of the beholder." According to American justice, three years of house arrest for Lieutenant William Calley was punishment enough for the murder (some rapes and torture) of 500 Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai Massacre.

Do we use our killing Timothy McVeigh as an object lesson for our children? If you kill someone, we will kill you. This lesson was certainly never learned by McVeigh and all the other murderers who came before and after him. Perhaps, the real lesson is that those who do not regard the lives of others as sacred have less regard for the value of their own lives.

It could also be argued that the cold-blooded murder of a fellow human being is so evil and so lacking in humanity that it is, by definition, an act of insanity. After all, 99.999% of human beings do not murder other human beings. And although McVeigh does not meet our established definition of "legal insanity," most sane Americans would agree that he was a very, very "sick" person. Certainly, we should not tell our children that there are some people who are so sick or so crazy that we should kill them.

I suspect that most people who support the death penalty do so because they believe that death is the worse possible punishment that can be imposed on a murderer. This, of course, is not true. For me, the worse possible punishment would be a life sentence with no chance of parole - isolated from all human contact (no visitors, no television, no radio, no newspapers, and even food delivered via some type of mechanical device). For good measure, place some large photographs of my victim and his or her family members near my cell and it would not take long for me to wish that I were dead.

Unfortunately, based on our existing laws, most "worse possible punishments" that we could devise would be considered "cruel and unusual." (Obviously, we believe that killing someone is "kinder" and "more normal" punishment). We, as Americans, need to come to terms with the irrefutable truth that death begets death and we need to agree on an acceptable "worse possible punishment." The federal government should administer this punishment to ensure uniformity and so that all Americans share equally in the cost. This is the logical and sane way to deal with those who ignore the most fundamental tenet of humanity - thou shalt not kill. We would then have the answer to the question: "what do we tell the children?" And the answer is that "we" shall not kill.


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