McVeigh - Test for Abolitionists
May 24, 2001
By Shelagh Simmons
At a time when support for the death penalty has declined in the United States, Timothy James McVeigh poses perhaps the greatest challenge yet for the abolitionist movement. He has admitted planting the bomb that left 168 people dead in the Alfred P
Murrah federal building, Oklahoma City. He has shown no remorse. And he has referred to the 19 children killed as "collateral damage".
Even some opponents of capital punishment say they could make an exception for McVeigh. And among the relatives who lost loved ones in the atrocity, there is disagreement. Some want him dead, believing it will bring what is often promised but rarely delivered - "closure". Some want him to live in the hope he may repent. But others want him spared simply because they do not believe in judicial killing.
Among those opposing the execution is Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie was among those killed that April day in 1995. He has met McVeigh's father and having seen his pain and anguish, considers him to be the greater victim. After all, how do you live with the knowledge that your child has carried out such a heinous act?
Gulf war veteran Timothy McVeigh says the bombing was in protest against the federal government. It was retaliation for the shooting deaths by FBI agents of the wife and child of an extreme right wing activist at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. And in revenge for the deaths in a fire of more than 80 Branch Davidians after a stand off with FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents in Waco, Texas.
To those who wish him dead we can add McVeigh himself. He had given up his appeals and was ready for execution - the first federal execution for nearly 40 years - on 16 May. He sees himself as a martyr to the cause. He even wanted his execution to be publicly broadcast - a request that was denied. So while killing him would give him what many think he deserves, it would also give him what he wants - a tricky concept for those bent on retribution. It would surely be better to deny him the martyrdom he
And although he denies it, some think he did not act alone. They believe he acted in concert with others and that the bombing was carefully planned by a group of neo-Nazi white supremacists. Also that the date picked - 19 April - was intended to send a
message. It was the anniversary of both the Ruby Ridge and Waco deaths. And it was the very day another right-wing extremist, Richard Wayne Snell, was executed for murder.
So a clear case of violence begetting violence. And it is feared it may not end with McVeigh's death since sympathisers could be inspired by his 'martyrdom' to carry out further violent acts.
There are also those who believe the FBI had prior warning of the bomb plot but the government chose to let it go ahead for political reasons. They say that is why the ATF office in the Murrah building was strangely empty that day. For those who like
conspiracy theories, there are plenty here.
Terre Haute in Indiana is the home of federal Death Row. McVeigh's impending execution has suddenly thrust the town into the media spotlight. While some residents are uncomfortable with this sudden notoriety, there are those who are more than
willing to make some capital out of this particular capital punishment. They are renting out their properties to the newspaper and television reporters covering the 'event'. On execution day, some plan to sell t-shirts designed to suit both pro and
anti death penalty tastes. Others will set up food and drink stands for those in need of refreshment. Something of a carnival atmosphere has built up, evidence if any were needed of the dehumanising and brutalising effect of judicial killing.
But now McVeigh's appointment with death has been postponed, thanks to the discovery of thousands of pages of evidence withheld from the defence, to the massive embarrassment of the FBI. And while he has admitted his guilt, this raises far wider questions about the administration of justice. For if it can happen in an agency with the huge resources of the FBI, and in such a high profile case, what is going on in other areas of the criminal justice system? And it is rumoured the new evidence confirms McVeigh did not act alone.
Another date of 11 June has now been set for the execution and it is not yet known what action, if any, McVeigh will authorise his lawyers to take.
This case raises many issues, but in the end it comes down to just one simple question - is it right to kill? If the answer is no, then Timothy James McVeigh should live. So should the more than 3000 others awaiting their fate in the US killing machine. And so should the hundreds on Death Rows across the Caribbean. For in the words of US Cardinal Roger Mahony, "we cannot practice what we condemn. We
cannot defend life by taking life. We cannot contain violence by using state violence".
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