Timothy McVeigh and "Closure"

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

The word "closure" echoes through talk shows and television comedies these days; we talk of reaching "closure" on failed relationships, and on all the traumas of our lives. There is an idea behind this, unspoken but burning brightly, that closure is possible: we only advocate for things we think can be achieved.

A search on Altavista on the terms "McVeigh and closure" produced very instructive results. On June 14, 1997, the day after the jury returned a death sentence, CNN.com ran a collection of quotes from victims and others. The first was:

"There'll never be closure. There'll always be this deep, deep hurt." -- Jim Denny, whose two toddlers were injured in the blast.

And further down in the stack:

"There is no such thing as closure for people who lost family in the bombing. The only closure is when they close the lid on my casket." -- Darlene Welch, whose 4-year-old niece was killed.

Survivors were hardly unanimous about what they wanted done:

"I really did not want the death penalty. I've had enough death." -- James Kreymborg, whose wife and daughter were killed.


"He doesn't deserve what you would do to a dog. He deserves to die." -- Bill Cregan, whose mother died in the blast.

It seemed as if many of the survivors and families were talking about closure, and journalists in a hurry were typing "closure" in lieu of doing some work:

The ex-wife of a second suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing says she hopes Monday's conviction of Timothy McVeigh can bring some closure to the victims of the tragedy.

McVeigh guilty: Terry Nichols' Ex-Wife Reacts, undated, Associated Press

Debbie Eaton Miller said she felt a sense of closure with the jury's decision.

``It's like a burden has been lifted,'' she said.

Miller was in a federal courthouse across the street from the Murrah Building when the bomb exploded. She said she suffered a concussion from the blast and still has headaches.

Verdict brings sense of closure for families, Amarillo Globe-News, June 3, 1997

In an editorial published June 23, 1997, The Nation opined that:

'Healing' and 'closure' were the two most frequently uttered words in the news coverage following Timothy McVeigh's conviction by a Denver jury of eleven counts of murder and conspiracy for the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. So universal was the desire to find some solace in the McVeigh verdict that practically no mention was made of the political culture that inspired his brutal truck-bombing.

The Nation concluded that if we fail to understand the influences on McVeigh-- intemperate rhetoric of the Gingrich Republicans, NRA rants about jack-booted thugs-- then "We will have no 'closure' -- perhaps only messages like that carried by a Ryder truck full of fertilizer."

From the Joplin (Mo.) Globe, an August 19, 1997 editorial:

There never will be a complete, satisfying closure for relatives and friends of victims or survivors of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

MSNBC.com columnist Jill Nelson on "The Myth of Closure":

It’s clear to me that they [victims and families] seek in witnessing McVeigh’s execution a satisfaction that they will never find. I understand why they hope that witnessing this act of revenge will bring understanding, enlightenment or closure. I also know that this is not where we will find it.

Closure, then is a phrase journalists come up with when they are writing to deadline with brains on autopilot. But it is also the U.S. government's rationale for televising McVeigh's execution to 325 victims and family members. In April, on CNN, I heard Attorney General Ashforth say that the television hook-up will help survivors and the family members of victims "close the loop" on what happened.

Yesterday morning, Monday, June 11, The United States killed Timothy McVeigh at about 7 a.m. The media descended on the victims and survivors, and not surprisingly what they heard was a real mixed bag. From The New York Times for June 12, 2001, p. 26:

For others, his death alone did not seem to be enough. They were frustrated with the sterility and seeming peacefulness with which the poisons did their work. Kathy Dutton, whose three year old nephew Zackary was one of the children killed in the second-floor day care center, said she wanted the elecric chair to be used because it would have been more painful. Jay Sawyer, 31, said his mother, Dolores Stratton, fell four stories to her death. She was terrified of heights, he said, wishing that Mr. McVeigh had felt some of that terror.

"I thought I would feel something more satisfying, but I don't," Mr. Sawyer said. "So many people suffered, and for him just to have gone asleep seems unfair."

Best quote of the day was from Tonya Smith, schoolteacher, not a victim or family member, but just a random shopper accosted by the Times reporter while shopping at the Honey Creek mall:

I think bombs should be strapped on him and then he can walk around the room forever until they went off and he wouldn't know when it would happen...

Other family members are opposed to the death penalty. Bud Welch, who toured the country speaking out against McVeigh's execution, lost his daughter Julie in the bombing. James Krymbourg, who lost his wife and daughter, said, "I really did not want the death penalty. I've had enough death."

In The Dramaturgy of Death, an essay in the June 21, 2001 issue of The New York Review of Books, Garry Wills listed the historical rationales for the death penalty: exclusion; cleansing; execration; maintenance of social order; deligitimizing a former social order; degradation; ordeal; inducement to remorse; repayment ("an eye for an eye"); victim therapy; pedagogy. Of victim therapy, Wills says:

. The Attic orator Antiphon has the father of a son killed by accident plead that the unintentional killer must be punished; the death leaves the father aggrieved (epithymion--much like Nietzsche’s ressentiment). The grievance, of course, would be even greater if the killing were intentional. Soothing this sense of grievance is now called "giving closure" to the ordeal of victims.

Wills notes that "We feel that the very existence of a McVeigh is an affront to society, a pollutant of our life, a thing we cannot be clean of without execration."

But the politician does not want to be seen ministering to atavistic reactions in their raw state. So he invokes deterrence where it does not apply, or says that humane consideration of the victims’ sympathies trumps all other considerations. Seeing the murderer die, we are told, will just help the families to "close a chapter of their lives."

But is this really likely? The aim of emotional healing is to bring inflamed emotions of loss and ressentiment back into a manageable relationship with other parts of one’s life. Does that happen when, for many years in most cases (six years so far in McVeigh’s case), a victim’s survivors focus on seeing that someone pays for his or her loss? This tends to reenact the outrage in a person’s mind, rather than to transcend it. It prolongs the trauma, delaying and impeding the healing process.

And he quotes Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking: "They learn new details of the crime, and with each new turn of the trial and its aftermath the media call them to get a reaction....I have seen families torn apart over the death penalty."

Two questions jump out of this tangled mass of references: What do Ashcroft, and government officials in general, really mean when they talk about "closure"? And what do the victims really want, and what do they actually obtain, from an execution?

Governmentspeak. Dictionary definitions of "closure" curiously lack the sentiment, the emotional warmth, the tearfulness of the concept as used on television and in popular culture. Found on Dictionary.com: Webster's Revised Unabridged: "A conclusion; an end." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Ed: "The act of closing or the state of being closed: closure of an incision... A bringing to an end; a conclusion: finally brought the project to closure." By contrast, nicely illustrating the pop culture evolution of the term, from the television comedy Friends, there is an episode where a character, Rachel, is advised by a date to reach closure on her failed relationship with Ross. Borrowing a cell-phone from a diner at a neighboring table, she leaves a drunken message on Ross' machine, ("I am OVER you"), tosses the cellphone into the champagne bucket, and announces, "Now, that's what they call cloooosuuuure."

When the government uses a vague, lachrymose phrase familiar from sitcoms and talk shows, we should be very afraid. In fact, we should always be profoundly suspicious when a government official of any stripe (and, pardon me, especially one of the far right) uses the language of compassion.

I do not think A.G. Ashcroft believes in closure; he was mouthing pieties the way politicians do, using them as placeholders, to conceal an actual meaning or to suggest meaning where none is intended. What we saw on June 11 in Terre Haute was not an exercise in closure, but simply a naked use of government power. McVeigh bombed a government building. The government, under its own laws, had the right to kill him, and it did. The rest is nonsense.

What the victims wanted. The proof that government talk of closure is nonsense lies in the reactions of the survivors. Two thirds of the people the government invited declined (about 700 people). More than 100 people who accepted the invitation, one third of those who said they would attend, did not show up. Of those who did, some expressed disappointment, that McVeigh did not emote enough, that he did not suffer enough. Other survivors, like Bud Welch and James Kreymbourg, said publicly that they did not want McVeigh executed: that doing so would not assist them to closure.

The people who were disappointed by the manner of McVeigh's death are the most interesting cases, as their reaction bears a lot more examination. "I thought I would feel something more satisfying, but I don't," said Jay Sawyer, a 31 year old man whose mother died in the bombing. "So many people suffered, and for him just to have gone asleep seems unfair."

Evidently, what we are talking about here is not really closure, but retribution, or, most charitably, retribution in aid of closure. Garry Wills' essay gives examples of the kind of finality our ancestors sought:

First the offender was dragged backward on a hurdle to the place of execution-- signifying, said the Attorney General Sir Edward Coke, that the man was "not worthy any more to tread upon the face of the earth whereof he was made; also for that he hath been retrograde to nature, therefore is he drawn backward at a horse-tail." Then the man (it was a male punishment) was stripped, hanged, cut down living, castrated, disemboweled, his heart and viscera thrown in boiling water, decapitated, quartered, and his head exposed on Tower Bridge.

As Rachel said, "Now, that's what they call cloooosuuuure."

Suppose that Jay Sawyer and all the others who lost loved ones in the federal building all had lined up outside the Department of Justice and eloquently informed Attorney General Ashcroft that the sole road by which they could reach closure was the hanging, castration, evisceration, disembowelment, decapitation, and quartering of Timothy McVeigh, followed by the public display of his head. Would it be government's role in a democratic society to help them reach closure at any price? Or would the "collateral damage" (to borrow a phrase from McVeigh) from such a public display of violence be too great?

Assuming that most Americans would draw the line at a public execution of the type lauded by Sir Edward, isn't it arbitrary to draw the line where we have done: "We will give you a public killing by lethal injection, but no more"? It is always crucial to reexamine any example of governmental line drawing, at regular intervals, to ask whether we have drawn it too close or too far.

In this case, the bewildered responses of the victims, and their various and contradictory opinions, illustrate the government's arrogance, Ashcroft's arrogance, in assuming (or in saying, since I don't think he believed it) that government could help the families reach closure. Some didn't want the death penalty. Some might have felt additional pain and suffering because of McVeigh's execution. Others wanted more: they could not achieve peace unless McVeigh suffered more, like Jay Sawyer. But the government, in advancing the "closure" excuse, implemented, as it so often does, a one-size-fits-all solution. If Bud Welch and James Kreymbourg did not want the closure offered by the government, well, then there must be something wrong with them. Perhaps a tip of the hat, instead, to Jay Sawyer: We would have happily eviscerated him for you, but the liberals won't let us.

If I am correct that the true message was not closure but some other elements from Wills' list--exclusion, cleansing, execration, maintenance of social order, degradation, ordeal, repayment and pedagogy--then there is a fine alignment between the government's philosophy in executing McVeigh and the philosophy it taught him when he served it as a medal-winning soldier in the Gulf War. From Howard Zinn, "McVeigh's Path to Death Chamber", Boston Globe, June 16, 2001:

In defending his bombing of the federal building, with all those dead and wounded, McVeigh used the term ''collateral damage''-- exactly the words used by our government to describe the deaths of civilians in our bombing of various countries, whether Iraq or Panama or Yugoslavia. My Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines collateral as accompanying or related, but secondary or subordinate. Both McVeigh and the leaders of the United States government considered the toll of human life secondary to whatever else was destroyed, and therefore acceptable....So long as our government engages in terrorism, claiming always that it is done for democracy or freedom or to send a message to some other government, there will be more Timothy McVeighs, following the example.

Zinn cites the U.S. rationale for deliberately bombing an air raid shelter in Baghdad on February 15, 1991, killing 600 people including women and children. The government claimed the shelter was a communications site, though reporters looking threough the rubble the next morning saw no evidence of that. Certainly, McVeigh's use of the phrase "collateral damage" was highly interesting, as it was a flagrant deployment of governmentspeak against its inventor, the government. In the end, McVeigh may have been killed more for this semantic violation, for the act of exposing government morality by turning it inside out, than he was to bring "closure" to anyone. Zinn says: "Government terrorism, on a much larger scale, will continue, and will be called ''foreign policy.'' That is the perverted sense of morality which now rules and will go on ruling, until Americans decide that all terrorism is wrong and will not be tolerated."

Right on the heels of McVeigh's execution, a jury in the New York federal trial of the Kenya and Uganda bombers declared its independence of Attorney General Ashcroft's version of morality, illustrating that the American jury can sometimes be the last remnant of direct democracy. Nine members of the jury, declining to sentence the defendants to death, wrote that "executing al-Owhali may not necessarily alleviate the victims' or victims' families' suffering." (New York Times, June 13, p. B8).