A Grievous Mistake
Sometimes I entertain myself by picking up a small string and tugging on it, until I either reach something interesting or run out of string. I'm not talking about unraveling sweaters, but thoughts.
Richard Heene, local psyience detective and father of the so-called "Balloon Boy" has retained a famous (or infamous depending on your views) attorney by the name of David Lane to represent him in the balloon incident. The Denver Post published a profile piece on Lane recently, and the message board commentary was interesting. I wanted to participate, and have this nagging recollection that Lane represented a man who was arrested for protesting at the Timothy McVeigh trial in 1997. Mainly this was to further prove the point that not all of Lane's clients are liberals.
I heard a story back then of the lawyer for this person being forced to the ground at gunpoint by the sheriff. I wanted to find it on the Internet for reference in my comment. I thought my google-fu was unstoppable. But now I think either my memory is faulty, or that I was wrong about my search prowess. By the end my search terms were some variant of these:
The main problem is that there are two David Lanes that both had public but tangential connections to McVeigh. One David Lane was a white nationalist who wrote McVeigh a letter from prison where he died while serving a 190 year term for driving the getaway car in the murder of Alan Berg. The lawyer David Lane was also interviewed about Judge Matsch during the McVeigh trial, because he'd faced him in court before. Even with my complex search phrase, I was still getting too many irrelevant hits that were taking me to places on the Internet I really didn't want to visit. Possibly if I pay for access to the Denver Post archives I can find it, but I'm highly tempted to just write and ask David Lane if that was him or if my memory is faulty. (Edit: I have done so, but haven't received a response yet. Will update if/when I have one).
But that isn't where the thread took me. I kept searching and searching. I found myself on Stormfront and other white power sites by accident more than once and by the end had to clear my cache and history so I felt a little less icky about it. Finally this thread I was following took me back to the wikipedia page for Timothy McVeigh. I read it completely and am still pondering it. But by the time I'd finished reading the page, it was abundantly clear to me that the execution of McVeigh was a grievous mistake for all involved.
I'm not particularly strong in my feelings about the death penalty compared with other issues that are more important to me. I do have concerns, but it isn't something I would unconditionally abolish if I had the power to do so. A disproportionate number of people on death row are minorities as compared to the overall prison population. That suggests troubling biases that our justice is not color-blind. Then there are the occasional posthumous exonerations. At the same time, in some cases it does feel like it is the appropriate punishment to me when the guilt is very clear. But McVeigh's was not one of those cases, despite his confession. I now strongly believe that it was a miscarriage of justice.
McVeigh referred to his execution as a form of state-assisted suicide. We gave him exactly what he wanted. If the point of the justice system is to punish the guilty then we not only failed to do that, but we actually rewarded him. If the point of the justice system is to deter others who might commit similar crimes, we definitely failed to do that and again even reinforced this option for the percentage of people who are both suicidal and homicidal. If the point of the justice system is to appease the need of the relatives for vengeance, it appears that we also failed at that task. From the wikipedia page:
Jay Sawyer, relative of one of the victims, noted, "Without saying a word, he got the final word." Larry Whicher, whose brother died in the attack, described McVeigh as having "A totally expressionless, blank stare. He had a look of defiance and that if he could, he'd do it all over again."
Some would have been happy to see McVeigh slowly tortured to death, but we don't do that. At some base level what separates "us" from "them" is that our response to their atrocities is still a humane one no matter how hard it is to see any remaining shred of humanity. They still get the full benefits of due process and even when the law finally says "you must forfeit your life for your crimes", and we come back at last to lex talionis, we still treat them more humanely than they treated their victims.
I believe a full life of imprisonment represented the only possible chance for real justice in this case. Some of the relatives of victims and other survivors of the attack may have felt the execution let them move on. Maybe that's enough. Maybe having a 95 year old dying McVeigh finally coming to a real sense of remorse and apologize would be too little too late. It is still hard to escape the feeling that he died believing he was right and he'd won his battle. I wonder if he had some messianic aspects to his persona that gave him real gratification from his own perceived martyrdom.
I guess part of where my thinking goes is that at some point if he lived another 40+ years, there's a chance he'd truly repent and by understanding how and why he was wrong he'd become a living counter-example for others who might idolize him or consider following in his footsteps.
I ultimately found myself pondering the larger question of why men do evil. I suspect we might have evolved language in part to wrestle with that question. In many cases, the motive is obvious and itself deemed evil by society (and I'm a moral relativist who firmly believes in the basic principle expressed by Oliver Wendell Holmes that my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins). Often men do evil because they are greedy, lustful or hateful and those things are called 'evil' by most of society too, in part because of the consequences of them. But McVeigh did something evil because he believed it was the right thing to do. Many men confess and accept their guilt and a death sentence, not because they want death, but because they want punishment. Those are the cases where I definitely support it even as I would say we need to legalize assisted suicide to remove that as a motive in such cases.
McVeigh wanted death, but it didn't represent a form of punishment to him. It was a reward and he believed he was on the side of good when he received it. We gave him his martyrdom, almost certainly ensuring there will be more like him.
November 2, 2009