Seeing McVeigh as the 'Other' Costs Us Our Own Humanity

Robert Karen is a psychologist and the author of "The Forgiving Self: The Road from Resentment to Connection" (Doubleday, 2001)

Timothy McVeigh's father wishes his son would express remorse, but the son says nothing about the dead or those left behind. And yet he does not seem to be a psychopath; he does not seem to lack a conscience. Rather, he appears to have extraordinary powers of dissociation. He's a military man. He was on a mission, a patriot's cause. He regrets the collateral damage--all those dead kids--because it distracts from his message.

One can only wonder at what else he has cut himself off from that has left him dry and pinched, with a lost boy's eyes, friendless as he approaches death.

When doing research for my book on forgiveness, I came across a story of a Filipino woman who visited her child's killer in his jail cell where he awaited execution. A devout woman, she didn't want him to die without her forgiveness. The murderer, who had not been contrite before, broke down in response and through his tears, expressed his remorse for the first time.

I find it impossible to imagine Charles Manson ever behaving that way. But I'm not sure about McVeigh. Who knows what is in him? There may be the potential for remorse. But he is sticking rigidly to his political position: He is no more guilty than other military personnel, like the U.S. bombers, for instance, who hit a civilian neighborhood when attacking Baghdad. To abandon this line of thinking might invalidate his life. From a brave soldier, he becomes a pathetic loner and mental case. As Ernest Becker said in "The Denial of Death," needing a sense of heroism to validate our lives lies at the very core of our psychology. But the need for purpose and justification can work against a connection with others, leaving a haunting isolation.

In the movie "Dead Man Walking," based on the encounter between Sister Helen Prejean and death row inmate Patrick Sonnier, we see a similarly defiant young killer on the margins of society. What is his heroism? Perhaps it's the very defiance itself. He has pride in being able to give the finger to society and all its winners. He acts as if he doesn't care that he killed or that he will be killed. To face the horror of what he did will cost him too much emotionally.

And yet, because he had a dedicated clergywoman working with him and pushing him to face himself, we are able to see a remarkable--and believable--transformation. He confesses. He cries. He engages in an authentic act of mourning. The mourning brings him closer to the sadness and pain of his broken life and enables him to cough up a bit of apology. This is a higher order heroism.

Without some genuine expression of remorse, we typically refuse forgiveness, because remorse softens our hatred and victimization and helps remind us that the wrongdoer is a fellow creature. This must be some part of what torments McVeigh's father.

And yet I think that by trying to understand McVeigh, even in the absence of remorse, we could understand ourselves better as well.

Like McVeigh's, all lives are plagued by failed mourning. We have difficulties accepting the changes that come with age, the hurtful ways we treat the people we love, the things we haven't accomplished, the opportunities we've thrown away. The father who rejects his son for leaving the faith or for proclaiming his homosexuality is choosing rage over mourning. It is easier to push his son away and lose everything than to deal with the pain of his son's separateness. In this, the father does not think of himself as rejecting but as wronged.

This rejection and brutality and the denial and dissociation that go with them are a part of our emotional and political lives. We may be eager to point the finger at former Sen. Bob Kerrey for slaughtering innocent Vietnamese. But looking at ourselves--and the thin membrane that separates us from barbarity--is much harder. It is partly for this reason that we must kill McVeigh: to declare his otherness.

People have good reasons to hate McVeigh and to want to see him dead. Vengeance is an understandable wish. But McVeigh deserves to be seen as a fellow human being. He is not so foreign as we might wish to believe. To recognize that in itself requires some mourning, some giving up of the cramped and convenient stories we tell ourselves. This, too, is a higher order of heroism.

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