A Search for Meaning in the Spectacle


In a nation famous for vicious criminals, there has never been anyone quite like Timothy J. McVeigh. Al Capone was a thug and Richard Speck was a sadist, but the remorseless, crew-cut man who blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing so many innocent people, was an ideologue, a terrorist without precedent in the American experience.

As the media reported his execution in painstaking detail, America's intellectuals, historians and philosophers struggled to explain what it all meant. While some said the death sentence was justified, others doubted that justice had been done or that the controversies generated by McVeigh's crimes would fade away. Few saw any cause for celebration.

Some were so overcome by disgust, in fact, that they found it hard even to talk about McVeigh. Less than an hour after his death, author David Halberstam could barely express his emotions, saying: "I hate every minute of this story, because he [McVeigh] is so completely off my screen, he's beyond comprehension. This man was unlike any other killer I've seen."

Executions may have become routine in places such as Texas, but McVeigh's sanctioned killing stands apart both for the enormity of his crime and because he was put to death in the name of all Americans--the first execution by the federal government since 1963.

Thus McVeigh's fate sparked fierce debates about capital punishment, even though contempt for the mass killer spanned both sides of the ideological divide. Former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, a staunch opponent of the death penalty, spoke mournfully about the Oklahoma City bombing victims and condemned McVeigh's blind hatred for the U.S. government.

But he said that "the needle, the gallow and the electric chair have become the symbol of our justice," adding, "We ought not to make our laws reflect our worst moments and impulses, and that's what the death penalty is."

From the other side of the political spectrum, National Review Editor Rich Lowry conceded that some conservatives' faith in capital punishment has been shaken by recent cases in which people were found to be wrongly convicted of murder. But he added: "If you can't execute Timothy McVeigh, you can't execute anyone. In this case, the justification is very clear."

In their best-selling book about McVeigh, "American Terrorist," authors Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck dwelt at length on the roots of McVeigh's obsession with guns and contempt for the government. Those questions have been amplified in newspaper, TV and radio coverage of McVeigh. But Lowry and other critics believe these stories have given the killer too much credit.

"To call what Timothy McVeigh did 'ideological' is a joke," historian Paul Fussell said. "The word is too high-class. It suggests ideas, and this guy had none. We're talking primitive responses and nothing more."

The media spectacle surrounding McVeigh "fills me with disgust," he added, "because it was a crude, retrograde celebration. Something to satisfy the crowd. It reminds me of what [American poet] Ezra Pound once wrote, that he was born in a half-savage country. That's what we are."

A disturbing thought, but not terribly surprising in a nation where everything has been reduced to entertainment, essayist Todd Gitlin said. Whether McVeigh will remain a "hot" story is unclear, he added, because there is no indication that he has spawned an army of copycat terrorists.

Indeed, some believe America's initial perception of the Oklahoma City bombing--and its subsequent views of McVeigh--say more about innate racism than they do about domestic terrorism. Hours after the 1995 bombing, rumors began spreading that the crime had been carried out by Muslim terrorists.

"Then we learned that it was McVeigh, and people suddenly saw the issue as less threatening, because he was a lone, crazed figure," said Todd Boyd, USC professor of film and pop culture.

Nobody was ready to blame white culture for his crime, Boyd added, "but with other groups, it's as though one person does something and the entire group is seen as guilty. That's how racism functions in this country."

America has a vested interest in bringing closure to the McVeigh case and casting him as "an outcast" because his contradictions are too painful for many to contemplate, said essayist and NPR commentator Richard Rodriguez.

"He may have grown up looking like Tom Sawyer and he may have been a war hero, but he was not the boy next door," Rodriguez said. "We chose to make him into a foreigner the way we initially suspected Arabs or others of the crime. And we had something of an exorcism in his deathwatch, because few of us wanted to listen to the things that Timothy McVeigh had said."

Rather than wrestle with these complexities, America framed McVeigh's execution as a media spectacular--a huge story a la O.J. Simpson and the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, said Joyce Appleby, a UCLA history professor.

"The bombing story also featured the publicizing of private emotions, which is now a very big trend in our culture," she added. "We don't grieve in private anymore. We grieve with other grievers, with the bombing victims. We join groups that have suffered the same loss. All of this allows the media to wring the greatest possible emotion from one single event."

Will McVeigh's execution be remembered years from now? Some experts suggest that such events have a remarkably short shelf life with the public, even though they will continue to shadow those people directly affected by the event.

"It's hard to remember many public executions," said Ellen Fitzpatrick, history professor at the University of New Hampshire. "And the ones that linger in our memory aren't like the McVeigh case--they're the cases where you have continuing doubt about guilt or innocence, like the [Nicola] Sacco and [Bartolomeo] Vanzetti matter, or where the issue in the case remains controversial."

McVeigh's guilt is not in question, and few Americans are stirred by the issues that drove him. What's left, Fitzpatrick said, is frustration: "Some people may take a grim satisfaction in this, while others will remain haunted. Either way, it's been a disturbing day for this country."

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