IMR: Entries: 2001: June: 11 — Monday, June 11, 2001

Last Hour

While Honolulu still sleeps, all eyes are on Terre Haute, Indiana.

There's no escaping the name Timothy McVeigh. His execution by the U.S. federal government will be all you'll hear about this morning; his death - 30 minutes away - leads the news overseas as well. I stayed up a little too late tonight, and now I know there'll be no sleep for me until it's done.

For the last week, and certainly all weekend, the media has been focused on McVeigh's execution. Heard just as often are the expected criticisms of the media for sensationalism, for obsessing, for shining a bright light on an ugly scar of America... be it the bombing in April 1995, or the death penalty. And while I understand — and while I'm as outspoken a media critic as you can get — I have to say in this case I'm glad the press is erring on the side of too much information.

Why? Because Timothy McVeigh, his terrible act, and his pending death, makes me uncomfortable. And I think the grumbling is, largely, because this story makes most Americans uncomfortable. This is not O.J. Simpson, or Elian Gonzales, or Monica Lewinsky. Sometimes we need to be uncomfortable. Sometimes we need to look at the demons around and within us and think and argue about what it all means.

I support the death penalty. This is exhibit number one in Jen's oft stated case that for all my advocacy of liberal and even radical causes, I'm actually a conservative. But my support is qualified, and frequently questioned and reconsidered. The McVeigh case has pushed this internal debate back to the surface for me, and it's doing the same for millions with the opposing view - witness the very frequently made comment, "I think the death penalty is wrong, but in his case, I think it's warranted." We can't have it both ways, and we know it. We should be talking about this, and not Halle Berry's breasts.

States, of course, have been killing criminals for decades. George W. Bush earned his Grim Reaper patch while governor of Texas. But the fact that some states don't have capital punishment says something. And finally, here, a chance for a national debate.

I'm as cynical about the government as the next guy. And when the news broke that the FBI had botched the case last month, delaying McVeigh's execution, I wasn't surprised. Here they were, helping McVeigh make his case again — how well-founded is your trust in the system? When he first positioned his subsequent appeals as something he did reluctantly and out of principle, then later dropped them altogether to let the execution proceed on schedule? Anarchists and anti-government activists no longer needed to doubt that they'd found their modern martyr.

What Pearl Harbor was supposed to do for Navy recruitment, no doubt, Timothy McVeigh is doing for American militias.

Eight minutes.

So the federal government gives McVeigh what he wants (right up to mint chocolate chip ice cream), and makes itself look bad. And the world is today reminded that of nearly all the "developed," enlightened nations on the planet, the U.S. is the aberration in putting its criminals to death. I'm acutely aware of this, and I appreciated the irony when President Bush said, "Mr. McVeigh is lucky to be in a country like this." He might not have had as strict a defense of his constitutional rights in Europe, but he wouldn't be killed, either.

BBC commentators are just perplexed by it all. The details of the execution chamber, the drug cocktail, the government's thick, official guide to death. Not only was access to the execution facility the year's hottest ticket, but live video of the man dying is being transmitted hundreds of miles to be broadcast in an auditorium. It's ghoulish. It's absurd, in a nation that claims the trademark on the word "freedomn." And seeing these outside reactions to the execution, this week, has given me the greatest pause.

But then again, it's been six years. A nation's memory is short. Even I'd forgotten, in a way, the brutal reality of what happened April 19, 1995. The media is also playing its role, here. All week, interviews with survivors, profiles of parents who lost their kids; on television, footage from the devestating scene. People in absolute shock, disbelief, unknowable fear and grief. In a moment, 168 lives lost, and thousands destroyed.

It's 7 a.m. in Indiana.

With nothing else to show there but a windowless building and a fence, instead I'm seeing chaotic scenes of blood and death from then; and from now, peacful, pensive scenes of people at the memorial in Oklahoma City. A young boy, who barely survived the blast, prays at one of the empty chairs, mourning perhaps for the playmates that didn't make it.

Am I being provoked? With these images, are we being riled back up to the point to where we want revenge, where taking a life almost seems justified? Perhaps. I just can't help thinking, though, that these feelings, if not civilized, are still natural. Is capital punishment the ultimate penalty in a system of justice, an ugly act of vengence, an inadequate bid at closure, or all of these at once?

I think man's potential for evil is as infinite as it is for good, and I can't accept that lifetime room and board, with MTV and pick-up basketball games, is the worst punishment we might have. I don't think anyone truly involved in the administration of the death penalty finds it pleasant, or has the bloodlust attributed to the average mob. And I don't think it is ever enough for victims - nothing will be.

Does it have to be all right, or all wrong?

Time of death, 7:14 a.m.

I don't know what to think. But I'm glad I'm thinking. I hope everyone is.


If you haven't yet, go read Stephen King's "The Green Mile" for a good sense of what life must be like for a condemned man. ... At the same time, go read "Mindhunter" by former FBI Investigative Support Unit founder John E. Douglas. Actor Scott Glenn worked with Douglas to prepare for his role as Jack Crawford on the Silence of the Lambs (as Crawford was apparently modeled after Douglas). Scott, an avowed anti-capital punishment liberal until then, got to see up close some of the true horrors that some criminals commit. In particular, after listening to an audio tape recording of two men torture, multilate, and rape a young girl (they'd apparently taped it for their future listening pleasure), Glenn changed his life-long attitude on the death penalty: at that moment he realized that life in prison is too easy a punishment for some people. ... Ever since my first real paper in 8th grade social studies class with Mrs. Kawakami (at Highlands Intermediate in Pearl City) where I chose to write about the debates of capital punishment, I have been pro-death penalty. While I believe there are numerous problems with it (mostly having to do with biases in our system), I also believe that for violent criminals who see no value in human life, the only thing you can do is take theirs away, and hope they find redemption in another life. As a society, that's the best gift we can give the survivors. ... I've been to the Murrah building back in 1998, before they started building the memorial. The place left me in tears. Now, at least, the survivors can move on with their lives. Free at last.
Lani (June 11, 2001 7:53 AM)

With all due respect, I wouldn't have put McVeigh to death. I don't think "eye for an eye" should extend to human life, in any case. Instead I would have given him a life sentence in solitary confinement...a sentence that truly fits his crime. You killed all those innocent expect us to kill We won't give you that way. Instead, we'll give you the rest of your earthly existence to think about what you did. Now if you find that to be "cruel and unusual," it seems a bit hypocritical, eh, that you consider long-term solitary to be cruel and unusual, but not death (which I consider to be the ultimate in cruelty and irreversibility)? Solitary pushes the envelope of humanity, but death crosses the line.
Keith (June 11, 2001 9:58 AM)

Frankly, I feel that the death penalty is essentially an eye for an eye. Plain and simple. Thus, the act of death should be by the same method as the original crime committed. Mr. McVeigh should have been placed in an open field inside a small building to which explosives were attached. At the appointed hour the explosives would be detonated. Of course, it's important that there be a fair amount of pain and suffering between the time of detonation and time of death. Sufficient time to experience terror and agony. Something that was inflicted upon others. While it startles me that I feel so little compassion for another human life, I then think about how these criminals felt nothing for those they killed. The death penalty is by no means a deterrant. Rather, it should be used as the ultimate punishment. Eight minutes of a lethal dosage of drugs is too easy.
dick (June 11, 2001 10:49 AM)

These images they show -- the boy praying for the friend who didn't make it -- is all part of the psychological manipulation of the media as they try to justify this execution to a people who are entirely conflicted. They want to save the world, they want to inflict their "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" morality (or their "eye for an eye" morality, though I think both are horrible arguements) upon people, yet they are so overcome with anger and outrage that they need justificiation for these feelings. So then the media oversaturates with the feel-good, real-life, tough stuff images of a fireman carrying a dead baby, of little children praying at the cemetary where their playmates lay. They want you to have an emotional reaction. They want America to be united in it's reaction. Unfortunately, it won't be. I have my own theories on the death penalty, and therefore their psychological manipulation has no effect on me. Its those who harbor that shred of doubt, that kernal of questioning for whom these tactics were designed and are most effective.
Mary (June 11, 2001 10:55 AM)

Okay, as I member of the media - if only in a small-time market - I can assure you showing those images is no some deliberate attempt to pull on the heartstrings of America. The thing you should keep in mind is that the media are normal, everyday people. Many of us are just as conflicted about this issue as everybody else should be. I have little if any doubt that those images where shown simply because the media itself is working through the demons. And the blood on their hands.
Vannoy (June 11, 2001 10:37 PM)

We need to learn to forgive even if we don't forget because otherwise we perpetuate the cycle of violence. Violence begets violence. Civilized countries don't have the death penalty.
anonymous (June 12, 2001 12:21 AM)

I see Keith's point as valid, but I don't think they should just be kept in solitary on my tax dollars. They should be made to labor for their food and shelter. Why should I pay to keep a mass killer with no remorse alive? Under our justice system, it takes money to sustain such a criminal- lease/rents, food, clothing, utilities, facility maintenance, janitorial staff, cooks, security, counselors, etc. Why should a survivor of the bombing or a parent or spouse of a victim, or even me, be forced to pay for the subsistence of the terrorist? A big chunk of prison money comes from taxes, and those survivors, if they are tax abiding citizens would be paying to keep the killer of their loved ones alive. I say, sure keep them alive and put them in solitary, but by all means make them work for their own subsistence.
C.B. (June 12, 2001 11:36 AM)

Mary -- I have a journalism degree (although I am a professional writer in another field now) and do you know what I do? I don't watch TV. It's the best thing I've done in my life not to be swayed by TV news. To the anonymous person ... It is ironic that you say "violence begets violence" because most of the violent criminals were victims of child abuse. When you are raped and beaten up as a young child, part of you dies, and you don't care if you do the same to another human being. As for civilized countries not having the death penalty, many of those "civilized" countries in Europe also turned a blind eye as Hitler's men committed one atrocity after another to their own people. That's REALLY civilized. Uh-huh. [and now I have invoked the Usenet Nazi rule, so I guess this thread is now pau??]
Lani (June 18, 2001 7:44 AM)

The death penalty is wrong. Period. I'm not saying that McVeigh didn't deserve it. Of course he deserved to be punished. WE are the ones who don't deserve to be subjected to more brutality - this time at the hands of a 'civilized' government!
Susan B. (June 24, 2001 8:32 PM)

I have my own very strong feelings about the death penalty, of course, but I'm not going to change anyone's mind here, so I'll refrain. Instead, I'll say that Amnesty International--Hawaii might ask you to stop publishing their newsletter if they read this entry! Just a joke, of course. I'm a card-carrying member of the ACLU (ssh! don't tell my boss!) and I don't support everything THEY do, either. But then, I don't publish their newsletter! Now, about Halle Berry's breasts: ARE we talking about them? Because you wrote this BEFORE _Swordfish_ was released, and I heard more than one person talking about whether or not they were hers as I was exiting the theater.
mitchell (June 25, 2001 10:32 AM)

E kala mai! Comments have been disabled due to overwhelming abuse by spammers. Please click through to any of the video hosting services linked above to leave a public response, or feel free to send an e-mail. Mahalo!

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