Let Timothy McVeigh Go, Let Him Go Quietly

Austin Sarat, who teaches political science and law at Amherst College, is the author of "When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition," forthcoming from Princeton University Press

Timothy McVeigh is back in the news, and this is bad for opponents of capital punishment. McVeigh’s desire to end all further legal appeals arising from the Oklahoma City bombing and receive an execution date puts the death penalty abolitionist community in a bind.

Should those who oppose the death penalty take up his case as they did that of Gary Gilmore, who in 1977 also gave up efforts to prevent himself from becoming the first person executed after the reinstatement of the death penalty by the U.S. Supreme Court? Should abolitionists now protest, as they did in the face of Gilmore’s expressed desire to die, that no one should be allowed to enlist the government’s aid in what amounts to suicide? Should they ask Americans to sympathize with McVeigh’s plight by reminding us that, despite the horror of his deed, he is a human being with the capacity to love and be loved, to hope and fear, to cry and perhaps even to change?

The answers to these questions are clear. If McVeigh wishes to have his death sentence carried out, no one should stand in his way, including those most vehemently opposed to capital punishment. The fact is that, despite McVeigh’s case, there is hope for progress in the struggle to end state killing, including Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s decision to impose a moratorium on executions in his state; the New Hampshire Legislature’s vote to end the death penalty, and the softening of public support for capital punishment revealed in recent opinion polls. This is just not the time to save McVeigh from himself.


Even if that battle could be won, it would come at the cost of associating the campaign against the death penalty with one of America’s most heinous killers. Though it might be right to help McVeigh if he wished to live, it is also true that concentrating efforts on the case of one infamous criminal would divert attention from the daily realities of capital punishment and the damage it does to our democracy and our culture.

Far from the drama of McVeigh’s latest gesture, in many less celebrated cases, the death penalty continues to legitimize vengeance, intensify racial divisions, promise simple solutions to complex problems and distract us from the challenges that the turn of the century poses for America. It also damages our political and legal institutions in ways that are just now being recognized by the American people.

We should continue to focus attention on the inadequacy of lawyers in capital cases, the fairness of limiting rights of appeal and habeas corpus for those condemned to die, and the very real threat of executing the innocent. Now may be the moment for people across the political spectrum to join with the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun in refusing any longer “to tinker with the machinery of death.”

The fear of the death penalty did not deter McVeigh’s murder of innocent people, and his surrender to the execution process will not make any of us safer. Yet we should let McVeigh end his appeals. Let him go. Let him go quietly.