A Clintonian "wound healing" execution by any other name is still an occasion of state murder. And there will be many more.

Published June 13, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

timothy McVeigh had to die. Surely this is obvious. The jurors in Colorado cogitated as if they had to themselves the power of life and death ("the justice of the high, the middle and the low" as the medieval potentates called it) and listened gravely as the mother and father begged for clemency. But the sentence was decided at the same time as the verdict, and the dozen citizens impaneled by lot had no more to do with the decision than I did. What if they had spared the beast of Oklahoma City? There would have been an uproar about class justice, race justice, regional justice -- the lot. In these United States, men are put to the needle or the chair for a gunshot blast in 7-11, or a Saturday night spasm at the domestic hearth. Excuse McVeigh from the ultimate penalty, and where are we? Did not our president himself use the occasion of the Alfred P. Murrah carnage to call for national healing and unity? Such reconciliation would have looked very dubious if McVeigh had gotten "life without" and gone to sign up with the Aryan Nations chapter in some dank penitentiary.

Lesson one in the application of the death penalty -- now restored as a federal option -- is that the more you impose it, the more you are obliged to impose it. Texas has the assembly line running at a brisk once-a-week rate. Florida is catching up. Other states are joining the marathon. Many of those cheering the spectacle are clean-cut, not-very-intellectual, veteran-revering foes of big government, just like Tim McVeigh. (You can bet your last cent that no member of the McVeigh family had ever, before this week, appealed for clemency in any capital case.) But at whose expense is this irony?

Down in the hog-wallows of American fascism, where white supremacy and thwarted nativisms make for febrile ooze, there will be grunts of joy at the prospect of McVeigh's impending martyrdom. On the day before the Oklahoma bombing, a racist double-murderer was being readied for execution in Arkansas and told his warder: "Look over your shoulder. Justice is coming." He wouldn't have known justice if it had bitten him in the gluteus maximus, but he knew about April 19th and the coincidence of dates between Waco and Patriots Day, and was superstitious enough to think that there might be a commemorative bang or two in prospect on the anniversary of his own impending death. So one thing can be stated with absolute certainty. The execution of McVeigh will cement the victim complex of a bizarre underground which would, if it could, erect a gallows in every square.

Nobody favoring the death penalty bothers much with the "deterrent" argument any more, and here is yet another demonstration of the hollowness of that discredited ploy. Literally no one believes that the judicial killing of McVeigh will deter his admirers and potential emulators; all the evidence we have about such people suggests that it will inflame them.

Again, despite the clear evidence that McVeigh was politically motivated, there is also clear evidence that he was nuts. His sad family and his demented fans may have balked at making this defense, but any objective reading of the man shows him to be that red-meat, corn-fed type: the American psycho. Even in the Middle Ages there was a distinct prejudice executing madmen. Have we stooped so far as to be immolating the insane to make ourselves feel better? The guy should be in an asylum, where it's even possible that he could yield some insights to patient researchers. He might, in time, be able to compose a regular prison letter for "First Things" or "National Review," or some other magazine that believes the state too big, and the judges too untrustworthy, yet concedes to both the power of life and death over the citizen.

I suspect we'll see an over-enthusiastic demonstration of support from these quarters for the jury's verdict, just to prove their evenhandedness as it were. If the law 'n order right does not enthuse about this legal snuffing, it will confirm what has long been suspected -- that it reserves the death penalty as an implement for disciplining the underclass and the inconvenient.

Do I seem to be trying to have this both ways? Why not? As a convinced opponent of capital punishment, I am in a position to stress the contradictions. I shall sign any petition to spare McVeigh, and if the militia ratbags don't start one I shall start one myself. I am against human sacrifice, and always have been, and always will be and do not grant the state the right to treat a life as a property. I am especially appalled at a Clintonian "wound healing" execution, where we all "put this behind us" and "get on with our lives" by approving an occasion of state murder.

Two years ago, I visited Terre Haute, Ind., where the new Federal death row has been constructed and awaits its first customer. I was shown around the relevant wing, and allowed to view the gurney and the lethal-injection parlor. Everything was banalised and medicalised, so the news from the said "facility" could be transmitted in an orderly manner, and calmly received. It was as if a "Death Therapy" bill had been passed by Congress without anybody noticing. The media caravan accompanying McVeigh to his eternal rest will make a hash of those trite plans. And though I doubt that McVeigh would relish this or any other irony, Terre Haute is the birthplace of Eugene Debs. At the much smaller and more modest museum downtown, which commemorates the home of this genuine American rebel and workers' leader, you may still read the passages where he dared to say that while there was a lower class he would be in it, and that while there was a soul in prison he would not be free.

By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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