Why give McVeigh just what he wants?

April 10, 2001|By Abe Novick

WHEN TIMOTHY McVeigh looks up on May 16, expecting to see a group of relatives of the victims he blew up, what if no one would be there staring back at him?

And what if there wouldn't be any cameras filming the lethal injection, either -- just him alone with his executioner and the required legal witnesses? No audience. No reality TV. No ratings. No hype.

If we make a spectacle of someone's death, there is a part of it that smacks of retribution. We become the hateful. The victims' relatives want to see him die, and it's understandable.

It's a feeling many of us share. His latest comments, made public in a new biography, refer to the children who were his victims as "collateral damage." Those words only serve to strengthen a desire for vengeance by inflicting even more pain upon the families and society.

But with a public execution, there would also be satisfaction gained. A sense of his getting what's due. That feels good. But what of that good feeling? Is it so good? What does it really do for the families and to us?

In Greek mythology, Echo, a nymph, wastes away, but her voice remains. No matter how the victim of a killing is seen in society's eyes, good or evil, there is a haunting inner voice in our collective conscience that lasts beyond their death, be it that of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. or McVeigh.

On one side, McVeigh will become a martyr to those who align themselves with his warped view. On the other, more admirable side, the nostalgia of Camelot or the noble dream of King continues to inspire hope.

More than 250 people have asked to be present and would witness McVeigh's execution on closed circuit television. Through a glass darkly, the lens would reflect a shadow at them, at all of us.

Even if it were to be shown only on closed-circuit television for the relatives of the victims, were it ever to be broadcast, it would be shown over and over.

Just like the white Ford Bronco. Just like Waco burning. Just like every other tragedy that looks and feels as if it's a close cousin to the latest in a slew of entertaining quasi-news spectacles.

Gore Vidal writes in his novel, "Live From Golgotha," about transmitting live from the crucifixion of Jesus. Although his controversial take was a satire, the course of history was changed when Western civilization's ultimate martyr was put to death. It also created numerous interpretations on his life.

If despicable terrorists like McVeigh are to be shown at the moment of death, of finality, the sympathy he so craves will become a reality and what he wants -- martyrdom.

In her book about the Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann, "Eichmann in Jerusalem," Hannah Arendt described the banality of evil. She maintained that Eichmann was an average, petty man interested only in furthering his career, and the evil wrought came from the seductive power of the totalitarian state and an unthinking adherence to the Nazi cause.

For the world to see McVeigh become the man behind the glass window, as Eichmann became the man in the glass booth, it would give meaning to one more oddball celebrity our world doesn't need and a status he doesn't deserve.

For McVeigh to know that no one came to see him die, his death would have that much more impact. Unlike in 1961 when Eichmann was tried, McVeigh understands the role the media plays in today's world -- how it can make killers into heroes and tragedy into entertainment. He understands how far and wide his image would be carried.

And that's what he wants. Why give it to him?

Abe Novick is senior vice president of strategic business development for Baltimore-based Eisner Communications.

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