The Public Killing of Timothy McVeigh

by Jonathan Wallace

I have two models of the functioning of American government. In one, the people in charge are rational but are taking actions with which I strongly disagree. In the other, the country is being run by raving lunatics. Most of the time, the first model seems to apply. Then one wakes up and finds oneself suddenly, without transition, in the other world, where the people in charge are crazy.

It happened this week when I read an article in the International Herald Tribune about the preparations being made for the execution of Timothy McVeigh. A public events firm has been hired to manage the numerous journalists who will camp out on the grounds of the prison, and is offering a $1600 or so package including bottled water, golf cart transportation, etc. A spokesperson for the company was quoted calling it, with an appropriately long face, I am sure, a "sad" event. The usual number of people will witness the killing first hand, but-- here is where it gets really crazy--it will be televised via closed circuit for another 250 or so in Oklahoma City. Attorney General John Ashcroft has become personally involved in the preparations; I saw him on CNN explaining at a press conference how the television hook-up will help survivors and the family members of victims "close the loop" on what happened. The mother of a victim then was shown saying that her daughter would be "pleased" to know she witnessed her murderer's execution.

Ashcroft also addressed the concern that hackers will capture the television signal and disseminate it on the Internet. The killing is being carried by fiber optic, so in order to do so, hackers will have to identify and tap into the correct cable. Of course, it is possible one of the spectators in Oklahoma City will carry a concealed camera into the viewing room.

I see the attorney general's personal involvement as a disturbing sign of his extreme fundamentalism. It's unseemly and highly inappropriate--in fact, it is crazy. With the execution--let's call it what it is, the judicial killing--of Timothy McVeigh, we are taking a huge step closer to re-instituting execution as public spectacle, as it was in the last century. Another revelation in the Tribune article: the government will set aside separate areas on the prison grounds for demonstrators, for and against, and will bus them there. They will be searched, however, and permitted to bring only designated items, including medicine, a bible and a protest sign. Why? Because the government is afraid, particularly, of the pro-killing faction, who have a tendency to bring symbolic items like frying pans with them to demonstrations.

What we are experimenting with here is a controlled spectacle , the seemly public killing of a malefactor. The best way, of course, to keep killing seemly is to keep it private, as in the recent past. There is every prospect that the government is playing with fire here, that "seemly" will give way to "public". The pro-killing faction will be raucous, and wave disgusting signs, even if they are denied their frying pans.

It is feared that McVeigh will use the opportunity of the few final words he is being granted (there is a time limit on his last words, just as there is a $30 limit on his last meal) to insult his audience. In the concerto of a public execution, the final statement is a cadenza, an empty place in the score to be filled in by the soloist. It is fascinating how almost all of the men we kill take advantage of the opportunity to speak, even though in a way, by obediently cooperating with the script, they are in a sense endorsing the legitimacy of what is being done to them. If you were being assassinated, wouldn't you fight your guards every step of the way? If the gag was removed at the last minute, would you utter anything other than a scream or a howl of rage? What functions instead seems to be the macho portrayed by James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces--the desire to make a strong impression, not to be frightened. But once you speak calmly to the people who are killing you, it seems to me you cooperate, you endorse your own death, regardless of which of the accepted themes you play: 1. I'm sorry, 2. I'm innocent, 3. I'm going to God, or 4. the death penalty is a Bad Thing. If more people on death row screamed and thrashed when executed, maybe more of us would really viscerally understand sooner that we are killing them, committing an act not of symbolic but of real violence against them.

I've quoted this before, in my essay The Death Penalty Legend, but there is no limit to the efficacy of a good quote:

Riley was a black man executed in San Quentin's gas chamber on February 20, 1953. He was small, only eighty pounds or so, and he was terrified. The guards had to carry him screaming and struggling into the gas chamber where, with difficulty, they strapped him onto the metal chair and bolted the door. But just before they dropped the cyanide pellets into the vat of acid, Riley managed to pull his slim wrists out of the restraints and jumped up, racing around inside the chamber, beating frantically on the glass windows where witnesses and media watched horrified. Prison officials had to stop the process, open the chamber, and strap him in again. This happened three times. And then he screamed in terror right up to the end, right up until he inhaled the gas.

Word has it that most of the guards who worked on Riley's "tactical unit" could never work another execution.

That's Sister Helen Prejean speaking, from Dead Man Walking.

If every execution went like this one, we would be forced to confront what the process really is, what it is about, because we would no longer be able to maintain the illusion that it is a choreographed dance of justice ending in the sad, fair, quiet and eminently just death of the accused.

Sad to say, if every killer went to his death screaming like Leander Riley, there are many in the frying pan crowd who would enjoy the spectacle even more. Because they are sadists, and the death penalty panders to their cruelest appetite. But at least then we would be truthful with ourselves. The death penalty degrades us, and we diminish ourselves both by the fact that we are killing Timothy McVeigh and the way in which we are doing it. In the service of truth, I hope one of the spectators surreptitiously tapes the killing, and disseminates the tape world-wide. To the delighted howls of the frying pan people. So we can all see exactly what we are doing here.