No Vengeance, No Justice

Article excerpt

Now that Timothy McVeigh has been executed, I suppose we're all supposed to stop talking about it--to "enjoy closure," a bit like the election.

But McVeigh's execution was troubling on so many levels, it's hard to know where to begin. It was alarming to watch the procedural impatience, the official "just get it over with" mentality, despite defense lawyers' not having had a chance to go through more than 4,000 pages of FBI documents that no one disputes ought to have been turned over before McVeigh's trial.

It was distressing to hear the semantic shiftiness of our President as he described the event. To us individualists at home, he said that it was McVeigh who "chose" this method of reckoning; to a European audience it was "the will of the people in the United States." Like some libertarian Pontius Pilate, Bush washed his hands of any responsibility, skillfully uncoupling the role of the executive from execution. It's bad enough to have a death penalty; it is positively chilling when the chief poohbah shrugs it off as though helpless, assigning federally engineered death to forces beyond him.

It was incredible to see anti-death penalty commentators apologizing constantly, always having to blither "of course no one condones his actions"--as though arguing for life imprisonment made one the squishiest, most bleeding-heart of moral equivocators. As a New York Times commentary observed, "Experts said it was the wrong case to debate--many people who do not approve of the death penalty wanted Mr. McVeigh to die."

Yet if one really wants to test the commitment of a civilization to its expressed principles of justice, the McVeigh case is exactly the right case to debate. There was little question as to his guilt (even if the question of conspiracy remains an open one in some quarters), his crime was inexpressibly reprehensible and he maintained a demeanor of controlled, remorseless calculation to the end. In other words, it is precisely the dimension of his evil that presses us to consider most seriously the limits of state force. The question is whether we want to license our government to kill, rather than just restrain by imprisoning, the very worst among us.

Much recent debate about capital punishment has focused on probabilities: the repeated demonstration that "beyond a reasonable doubt" is a matter of considerable uncertainty and outright error. I have recommended before Actual Innocence by Jim Dwyer, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, and I do so here again. These lawyers' work with the Innocence Project has led to dozens of releases from death row and to calls for moratoriums in states where pro-death penalty sentiment once ran high.

There is also the question of disparate impact, particularly upon minorities and the poor. "There are no racial overtones in [McVeigh's] conviction," wrote the New York Times in an editorial. Perhaps that's true if considered in a vacuum, but certainly not with regard to its procedural legacy. If the FBI couldn't get right the most important and supposedly most careful investigation in its history--and still no stay was granted--then there is no hope in any other case. …