Apr/May 2001 Salon

The Martyrdom of St. Timothy

by Paul J. Sampson

As this is written, Timothy McVeigh is scheduled to be executed in about a month. By the time most people read this, he will be dead.

Even alive, he has already attained a martyr's crown among the fantasists of the Far Right. Think of him posed in the style of St. Sebastian, with hypodermic needles in place of the traditional arrows. For his devotees, and they are far more numerous than it is comfortable to admit, he is already what Nathan Hale was to the American Revolution, what the Immortals of 1916 were to the supporters of the Irish Republic.

What tedious nonsense. What noxious twaddle. (And not incidentally, what a trial for those, like me, who oppose capital punishment.)

McVeigh embodies the principle that the end justifies the means. In his view, quoted in a recently released book based on interviews with him in prison, he assumes that his objective—warfare against a vile enemy—justifies the regrettable but unavoidable death of bystanders, including children. The dead children, he said, were "collateral damage," the ghastly phrase invented to excuse the civilian casualties of the Gulf War, in which McVeigh served.

The debased language of a phrase like "collateral damage" should not surprise us. It flows from the debased morality of ideological warfare. Our enemy is not a mere adversary, but Evil Incarnate. Therefore, any means is permitted to overcome him. The end justifies the means.

Well, no it doesn't, and it never did. Rather, using evil means corrupts even noble ends. Even supposing (which I do not) that McVeigh was justified in using deadly force against the United States, the act he perpetrated was so floridly wicked as to taint even the purest cause.

What, then, about the Allied air attacks on civilian targets in Germany and Japan in the 1940s? Even allowing for the relatively greater proportionality, and the circumstance of declared war, it's hard to justify the bombings of (say) Dresden and Nagasaki. The bombing of those cities is still a moral problem, and not a trivial one. The massive bombing of cities in Vietnam (and the destruction of forests and food crops there), is similarly hard to defend, even for those who can excuse the war itself.

In general, the only way an evil action can be justified is to show that it is the lesser of two or more evils, in a situation where inaction is itself an evil choice. I will grant that such situations may and do arise in warfare, but this is not a blanket excuse for bloodshed.

Even when a warrior must make an ugly choice, it is important to call the action by its real name, not some heartless euphemism. Time was, the slaughter of civilians and their children was an atrocity, a shocking war crime. Now, it's collateral damage.

To pick up on an earlier thread: What can a death-penalty abolitionist like me say about the execution of Timothy McVeigh?

I won't miss McVeigh. He was a self-recruited soldier in an imaginary army of a non-existent country. Only his casualties are real. He did enormous harm in the service of a demented cause. Nevertheless, I must point out that killing him promotes him to martyrdom, a grotesque outcome. It will deter nobody from similar crimes, and may in fact trigger more outrages. It lowers us to his standard of "justice." It is a premeditated homicide, like all executions, a fact that ought to make us morally queasy, at the very least.

Ah, but what of the emotional needs of the widows and orphans he created so lavishly? Attorney General Ashcroft decreed that they should be allowed to witness the execution on closed-circuit television, because, he said, they needed "cloture." I assume he meant "closure," that psychobabble buzzword that generally means "revenge." I certainly hope the poor souls do in fact learn to live with their grief. But I fear that the only "closure" achieved by an execution is bending the arc of suffering into an endless wheel of pain, rolling on and on.


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