- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2001

If Timothy McVeigh were spared from execution next week, he might expect to spend the rest of his life locked in an 8-by-12-ft. federal prison cell for 23 hours a day, with only the most spartan furnishings, virtually no contact with other human beings and just one hour a day for exercise. He could endure that bleak routine 365 days a year, for 40 or 50 years, with no hope of ever drawing another free breath.

God, what a disgraceful act of coddling that would be.

Instead, McVeigh will be killed by lethal injection next week. That's the sentence he was given for blowing up a federal office building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

His case presents the issue of capital punishment without the complicating factors that usually attend it. He got a full, fair trial with a top-flight lawyer. He doesn't deny his guilt, he's not retarded, and he appears to have been perfectly rational when he carried out the bombing.

McVeigh, unlike many death row inmates, can't claim to be the victim of racial bias. He wasn't horribly abused as a child. He's not repentant, and he hasn't found Jesus. And his crime was about as shocking as you can imagine. So this is the perfect occasion to ask if we are ever justified in premeditatedly killing a convicted criminal in the name of justice.

Americans harbor considerable ambivalence about the death penalty and how it is administered in this country. Illinois Gov. George Ryan has imposed a moratorium on executions because so many innocent people have ended up on death row, and the Supreme Court of Maryland has effectively stopped them there for the moment. A dozen states, of course, don't permit capital punishment at all, and several others haven't seen the need to actually use it in the last quarter-century.

When it comes to the Oklahoma City bombing, though, people put their doubts aside. Only two out of three Americans endorse the death penalty for murder — but, according to a new Associated Press poll, four out of five want to see McVeigh executed.

But not all the problems that go with capital punishment disappear just because the condemned is one of the most despicable killers in American history. It's still a grossly expensive luxury: A Duke University study found that everything involved in putting a criminal to death costs some $2 million more than just locking him up and throwing away the key.

The “ultimate punishment” is a miserable failure as a crime-prevention measure: 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 percent of executions, has the highest murder rate of any region.

The last resort of capital punishment supporters is to point out that it at least prevents the person executed from killing anyone else. But in that respect it offers no real advantage over lifetime incarceration. How many people has Charles Manson killed since he was locked up? The chance that an inmate sentenced to life without parole will escape and commit new murders is not small — it's microscopic.

Advocates of abolition, I should point out, are generally not motivated by a mushy-hearted concern for vicious murderers. If McVeigh were to take a fatal fall in the prison shower, many of us would be happy to hear the news. For that matter, it's safe to say that even among death penalty opponents, not a single tear will be shed when he is pronounced dead May 16.

But that doesn't make his execution wise or right. The problem is not that McVeigh dies but that the rest of us kill. Selecting a specific individual to be executed involves us all in a cold-blooded homicide that we commit not because it is tragically necessary — as killing someone in self-defense may be — but because we want to.

What makes the death penalty appealing is what ought to make it unconstitutional: its calculated cruelty. We put murderers to death precisely because we want to inflict needless suffering. Incarcerating someone for life may be harsh for the criminal, but it's no harsher than necessary to protect society. In the case of executions, self-protection is irrelevant. The point is vengeance.

Defenders say only execution can satisfy our sense of justice. Well, once upon a time, only torture or drawing and quartering or other excruciating forms of execution could satisfy people's sense of justice.

Sadism, fortunately, has largely been abandoned as a method of dealing with criminals. We should likewise have advanced beyond the point of thinking that the intentional sacrifice of human life can ever be a positive good. So far, we haven't.

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