Tuesday, May 1, 2001

No pardon, then, for Timothy McVeigh, the White House having — with some regret for the circumstances, I’m sure — refused Pope John Paul II’s request to spare the mad bomber’s life.

Which only means that, come the day of execution, the capital punishment controversy will rise to a new crescendo. Daring to turn down the pope? Yes, daring out of duty, out of social necessity. If the pope’s theological duty — as it seems to him — is to plead for Tim McVeigh’s life, so President Bush’s duty is to deny a request at odds with the public weal. I mean, the public weal as traditionally understood, not as reconsidered and re-reflected on over the past four decades.

The McVeigh execution occurs amid one of those periodic discussions we Americans have about the legitimacy of capital punishment. The current argument has been going on for several years, fueled by scientific advances that make possible, through DNA testing, a more precise appraisal of guilt or innocence. Likewise particular convicts on death row have been freed due to what appellate courts took as preponderant evidence of their innocence.

Events such as these make us cautious. That’s fine. The justice system exists to protect innocent life. A crime victim and a mistakenly accused suspect have equivalent rights to the state’s care for their persons. Neither right cancels out the other. But, as you may have noticed, we’re human. A good old human tendency is to lurch from one extreme to another. The extreme toward which the self-consciously compassionate point us at this moment, with their calls for execution moratoria, and their continual questioning of trials and verdicts, is the outright abolition of the state’s right to kill even a Timothy McVeigh.

Even a McVeigh. Try that one on for size. With all the malice aforethought you’d want to encounter in 10 lifetimes, the great avenger blows up unoffending men, women and children. The children’s deaths he describes as “collateral damage.” Whoops! So it goes.

It is one thing to question the death penalty for particular offenses; it is another thing to question — I say this with deepest respect for the pope — the death penalty for Tim McVeigh. Suppose, rather than execute this man, we merely jailed him for life, feeding, clothing, entertaining, and even, when necessary, healing him. How would that speak for our feelings about the lives he took? We’re a little sad, yes? A little angry — that, too. And that’s it? That’s it, apparently.

The death penalty may or may not deter crime. One thing it does is sum up the way our society feels about a particular breach of the social contract — like the blowing up of children. The death penalty defines the extremes of social behavior; states explicitly what we’re not going to put up with.

The oddness of our very odd age proceeds partly from how we direct social anger — against tobacco, against environmental pollution, against (if one can believe it, and one should, after the Quebec riots) “globalism.” But not against evil!

Evil? What, after all, is that? We used to look it in the eye, call it by its right name. We did so as recently as the Nuremberg Trials — which, for all their family resemblance to the Greeks’ mop-up of Troy — embodied the conviction that certain nominal members of the human race had disqualified themselves for future membership. Disqualified themselves — that was the point. They started it. We finished.

Some death-penalty opposition is mere sentimentality, or else theological well-meaningness. Much more of it, one fears, is the oh-so-modern refusal to acknowledge in our midst the presence of evil — and the commensurate obligation to battle it.

If we don’t execute Tim McVeigh — wholly in accord with his own wishes — whom do we execute, ever? A bad boy, our Tim? — but not a hopeless one? We should let him grow far older than those he murdered?

It takes a sorry society to believe thus. The good news is, ours doesn’t. The bad news is, many among us earnestly wish it would.

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