In his masterful book, Violence Unveiled, Gil Bailie picks up on a passage from the diaries of Captain Cooke. Cooke had landed on one of the Polynesian Islands and befriended the chief there. One day the chief took him to a ceremony where a man was killed on an altar as a sacrifice to the gods. Afterwards he asked Cooke what he thought. Cooke was horrified. He said to the chief: “This is barbarian! In a civilized country, we’d hang you for doing this!” The irony shouldn’t be missed.
On May 16th, Timothy McVeigh, the infamous Oklahoma City bomber whose deadly terrorist blast killed 167 people is scheduled to be executed. From all that is reported it seems too that he remains unrepentant, arrogant, publicity-driven, and living within the delusion that his terrible act was a thing of courage and high morality. It’s hard, emotionally, to be against this execution.
If we were truly honest, I suspect, most of us would have to confess that we want him to die. The heart, as Pascal said, has its reasons: “He has it coming!” “He’s an arrogant brute!” Something there is in us that wants to see arrogance snapped at its neck. Who among us doesn’t taste a delicious satisfaction when, at the end of a book or movie, the good folks finally rise and kill the bad?
These feelings seem particularly strong in this case. Timothy McVeigh, at least to this point, isn’t exactly Karla Tucker, the woman executed in Texas a couple of years ago who went to her death repentant, apologizing, asking God to use her death to bring healing to her victim’s loved ones. Sincere repentance can help to undercut that righteous fever that so spontaneously grips us, making us long for a morally superior violence to come and eradicate the bad.
It has, it would seem, ever been thus. When the prophet Isaiah spoke about what would happen when God finally came to save us, he announced not just that the hungry would be fed, that the brokenhearted would be consoled, and that those who are oppressed would be set free, but he announced too that part of the joy would be “a day of vindication”, where we would get to watch the bad get their just desserts. Heaven, in this view, includes the making even of old scores (Isaiah 61, 1-3) However, in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus is in the synagogue in Nazareth and is asked to read this text, he omits the part about “vindication”. The heaven he proclaims does not include, as part of its joy, the emotional pleasure of watching the suffering of those who made us suffer. (Luke 4, 16-19)
Given all of this, what might be our attitude towards the execution of Timothy McVeigh?
This execution is wrong, not because it might serve to make Timothy McVeigh a martyr in his own eyes, but because all killing is wrong, pure and simple. As Matthew Ponselet, the condemned man in Dead Man Walking, puts it in his final words: “Killing is wrong; and it doesn’t matter whether I do it or you do it!”
Killing begets more killing and violence begets more violence, always. There’s a circle of death, just as there’s a circle of life. Capital punishment is part of the circle of death. There is no morally superior violence. Capital punishment abdicates its moral ground precisely because it mimics, however unconsciously, the very violence it’s sincerely trying to subdue. Killing is killing, no matter who does it. Jesus wouldn’t pull the switch on a death-machine and we shouldn’t pull it in his name.
So what should we do on May 16th? We might pray – for Timothy McVeigh and for his victims and their families. Moreover, if we really want to “light a candle”, we might write a letter to McVeigh’s family, telling them that we feel for them, that we know how complex life can be, and that we don’t blame them for what happened. But I suggest another thing too: Timothy McVeigh pulled a switch that killed 167 people because he was morally incensed, outraged, convinced that the government of the USA had committed an atrocity against innocent people and he wanted to see “a day of the Lord”, “a day of vengeance”. He tried to use a violence he understood as being morally superior to make a statement. His execution, if there’s to be any good in it at all, can be the occasion for us to get in touch with precisely those same misguided, morally-fevered feelings inside us. Our feelings, like his, are easily murderous, and murderous in the name of all that’s good. In executing him we are, however much we don’t want to admit, somehow mimicking him, helping perpetuate the circle of death.
Yes our spontaneous feelings favour this execution and these feelings are understandable, justifiable, and morally-grounded, but, but … they give us a certain pleasure in another man’s death and if we feel good because someone else is dying, what ultimately is this saying about us?