Alexander's Column

McVeigh's revenge

Mark Alexander · Jun. 8, 2001

Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people (including 19 children) in the 1995 bombing of a central government office building in Oklahoma City, in what he claimed to be an act of revenge for the unrequited deaths of other innocents. As commentator Mark Steyn noted of McVeigh’s misdirected act, “Let it be said that what Timothy McVeigh did is evil. But [referring to the Waco incident] something is wrong when the state’s paramilitary police can kill its own citizens with impunity, those responsible get promoted, and the big news organizations can’t even recognize public anger over it. Two wrongs don’t make a right. But killing McVeigh for the second wrong shouldn’t blind us to the first.”

Even more than that, the Oklahoma City bombing fell into an environment of politicized justice: McVeigh’s revenge had further “collateral damage” in providing an opening to viciously partisan Sociocrats like Bill Clinton that complainants about government abuse of power could be accused as McVeigh’s accomplices. Any criticism of government, however valid, was taken – almost without exception – as incitement to criminal violence.

This cowed many conservatives into silence, although no real conservative has ever been allied with the thinking or methods of McVeigh. And, arguably, that silence in the face of false invective was primarily responsible for holding back conservative gains from the 1994 elections, setting the stage for Clinton’s 1996 re-election, and eroding conservative confidence ever since.

A curious factoid has been reported: More people seem to support the execution of McVeigh than support the death penalty generally. (While we at The Federalist place little stock in polls, these statistics are anomalous enough to be worthy of comment – as telling distortions if false, but especially noteworthy if true.) In a rational view, a specific application of the death penalty could never be more popular than the general practice in principle.

Perhaps this is also due to Clinton’s ruthless, execrable exploitation of the crime for political benefit. As we asked in Federalist #01-22, does anyone doubt that Clinton has exploited the death penalty as a cheap political symbol?

But the vast right-wing conspiracy didn’t really exist; so Clinton was determined to create it, through whatever means at his disposal. The worst aspect of such politicized justice is in not allaying suspicions of vigorously contentious opponents, particularly when inconvenient. Neither crime nor punishment can be properly treated as simply another political opportunity.

And the cause that allows such confusion may lie in our lack of consistent, well-reasoned principles of justice. A crime is an act that both destroys and creates relationships, as we can see from examining the Judeo-Christian foundations of justice.

In the Torah the emphasis was on deeds and actions. Violating God’s laws was held to create a moral debt to God and usually also a practical debt to other people, which could be repaid through sacrifice offerings to restore the wrongdoer’s relationship with God and actions to make whole the wrongdoing’s human victim. This was a criminal justice model based in retribution and restitution.

Christianity grew from these traditions, but introduced a centrality to mercy, even undeserved mercy, for wrongdoers. The Lord’s Prayer, the model prayer Jesus taught the disciples, illustrates this transformation in beliefs, as the prayer asks God to “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Christianity focused on beliefs, on repentance as a changed mental state, bringing salvation to restore the relationship between humans and God. Forgiveness thus supplanted the need for paying back the debt created by wrongdoing, and the related criminal justice model emphasized rehabilitation.

The new focus on states of mind may have removed any essential concern for a moral view of “paying back” the actual victims of crimes. Criminal justice in the United States now is based on psychological views of human nature. The changing terminology for incarceration facilities bespeaks our changing view of the purposes of consequences for criminality. Jails and prisons, as “penal” institutions for punishment, gave way to penitentiaries, for repentance, which were later replaced by correctional facilities, for humanitarian reform. Moreover, collectivized justice is expressed in criminals “paying their debt to society.”

Restitution to the actual crime victims is rarely involved, and the only recourse for true forgiveness is for victims to not press charges. Decisions about crime and punishment, transferred to the impersonal judicial branch of government, sever the relation between criminal and victim created by the act of crime. Accountability therefore is no longer assessed in real human terms.

Of note in assessing the death penalty’s community protection effect: Of the 52,000 prisoners serving murder convictions in 1984, 810 had prior murder sentences and had subsequently been released to kill again, for another 821 murder victims. Columnist John Corry cited the case of Kenneth McDuff, convicted of two 1966 murders, and paroled in 1989 because of Texas prison overcrowding, who then murdered at least nine women.

Such problems in the legal culture descend from contradictions in the larger culture. Relativism as an operational philosophy provides a useful cover for both system-serving politicization and self-serving careerism. And too much faith can be placed in courtroom adversarialism as “evening out” into true justice.

“The FBI has done far more damage to finality in this case than McVeigh or his counsel could do,” commented McVeigh defense lawyer Robert Nigh this week. The FBI’s withholding of promised evidence may forever cloud the matter, as Clinton clearly had no interest in searching for any other likely McVeigh accomplices. He had already identified John Doe No. 2 as John Q. Public Conservative. (The last federal execution was 38 years ago, and McVeigh was leapfrogged over the convict next scheduled for death.)

Though he will be executed June 11th, McVeigh has his deeper revenge. As he moves toward execution for his federal crime, his case illustrates our continuing double standards in application of justice, that agents of government are granted moral exemptions for their acts, which are routinely denied to those not “serving” government.

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