To Kill or Nor to Kill McVeigh

No Consensus, Even Among Victims´ Relatives

WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 26, 2001 ( Numerous articles have debated whether Timothy McVeigh should be executed. Here is a sampling of the views expressed, which give an overview of the death-penalty debate in the United States.

“Heinous crimes”

U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft explained that he supports the idea of resuming federal executions with the death sentence of McVeigh because those who have carried out particularly “heinous crimes” deserve to suffer the most serious penalty. In an interview published April 28 by the Washington Post, Ashcroft stated that he has no plans to impose a moratorium on the death penalty.

During the attorney general´s confirmation hearings in January, he told senators that he strongly supported the death penalty but would “make sure that we have thorough integrity and validity in the judgments we reach.” He also described capital punishment as “a way to demonstrate the value of life” and to keep victims from taking the law into their own hands.

Peter Roff, in an April 24 article with National Review Online, defended the death penalty for McVeigh as well as the decision to televise the event to victims´ relatives. Roff speculated that McVeigh will be “reduced to whimpering cowardice” at the moment of his execution and that the families of his victims should be able to see this spectacle.

In the May 14 issue of The Weekly Standard, Tod Lindberg disagreed that McVeigh should be executed in deference to the victims´ families. If priority is given to the victims, he argued, there exists the risk that “criminal justice reverts to a premodern form, in which adjudication is entirely a matter of satisfying the private claims of an injured party.”

McVeigh´s execution, in Lindberg´s opinion, should not be supported in order to settle a score between the criminal and his victims, but rather because of the damage done to society and the state´s judgment that the seriousness of the crime merits the death penalty.

In a May 7 article for the Los Angeles Times, Daniel E. Troy wrote that “innate moral sense” calls for McVeigh´s death. Troy argued that McVeigh´s crime was particularly grave, he was well-represented in the trial, and there was no question of racial bias in the sentencing. Moreover, Troy stated, it is public knowledge that committing murder can lead to the death penalty and “McVeigh made his choice and should have to live and die with the consequences.”

“Executing McVeigh is the best way to affirm Americans´ deeply held belief that life is a gift from God and that those who coldbloodedly snuff it out should not continue to enjoy that gift,” the article concluded.

Arguments against capital punishment

Among those who have argued against executing McVeigh is R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., editor in chief of the American Spectator. In a May 11 article for the Washington Times, he based his opposition by observing how today the dignity of human life is questioned throughout American society.

“An end to capital punishment might serve as a beginning to a discussion of life in society, in citizenship and in the arts,” commented Tyrrell. Moreover, by locking McVeigh away for the remainder of his life, he would be denied the opportunity to “romanticize his crank views and his evil self.”

Steven Chapman, writing May 10 in the Washington Times, said the death penalty suffers from a number of defects. It is expensive, for starters. Chapman cites a Duke University study that found putting a criminal to death costs about $2 million more than a life sentence in prison.

As to whether the death penalty is a deterrent for other criminals, the Death Penalty Information Center notes that homicide rates, on average, are one-third lower in states without the death penalty than in the rest of the country. The South, which accounts for 80% of executions, still has the highest murder rate of any region.

And for the argument that capital punishment prevents a person from killing anyone else, Chapman observes that in that respect it offers no real advantage over lifetime incarceration.

More fundamentally, Chapman argued that “the problem is not that McVeigh dies but that the rest of us kill.” Society, he said, chooses to execute someone not because of a necessity such as self-defense, “but because we want to.” The article concluded by noting that the country should have “advanced beyond the point of thinking that the intentional sacrifice of human life can ever be a positive good.”

As to the question of public benefits or relief for the victims´ suffering, Franklin E. Zimring, Los Angeles Times, May 11, observed that in “shifting our attention from crime to punishment, the process of execution confers more publicity on the criminal than the crime.” Executions could also create new martyrs and spur further crimes, he warned.

Zimring also argued that there is no evidence that surviving relatives feel better or recover faster when a defendant is executed.

The families of the victims

The relatives of McVeigh´s victims are divided over his execution. Of the approximately 2,000 relatives of the victims and survivors of the bombing who legally qualify to witness the execution, only about 15% have expressed a desire to do so, the Washington Post reported April 15.

“I don´t want to see anyone die — that´s not what I´m looking for here,” said Kathleen Treanor, who lost her 4-year-old daughter, Ashley Eckles, and her in-laws in the blast. “But if I don´t visibly see this man take his last breath, I will not be able to let go of that chapter in my life.”

But Bud Welch, who lost a daughter in the bombing, has become a vocal opponent of capital punishment, speaking across the country. “I went through a period of vengeance for 10 months after Julie was killed,” he said. However he came to realize that this would not bring him any peace.

Another testimony was offered May 13 by the New York Times. Patrick Reeder lost his wife in the bombing and he explained how for a long time he wished for McVeigh´s death. But after a long and difficult period of adjustment he decided that executing McVeigh is not the answer.

During the trial Reeder became increasingly disturbed by the blood lust he saw in a number of his relatives who favored McVeigh´s death. Explaining why he now opposes the death sentence, Reeder says, “It is not about justice — it is about revenge.”

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