In the unlikeliest of reactions, I felt a surprising rush of relief when Timothy McVeigh's execution was delayed. Not because McVeigh, monster narcissist, doesn't deserve the worst fate, but because death may not be it.
Forgetting familiar moral and even practical arguments against the death penalty, McVeigh's case demonstrates on yet new levels that capital punishment may be the wrong response to even the worst crime.
Which is not to question or minimize victims' rights to justice or families' need for revenge. If the families of the Oklahoma City bombing victims stormed the prison where McVeigh entertains reporters and ripped out his lungs, I'd be hard-pressed to judge.
I am an unlikely opponent of capital punishment. Three members of my extended family have died at the hands of murderers, all at young ages, all randomly, in the wrong place at the wrong time. No one at our family dinners is much interested in considering that the murderers should remain alive for any reason.
I understand the insatiable lust for revenge.
But in McVeigh's case, emotional distance from this banal bully permits one to view his lot in a slightly different light. The issue isn't so much "Should he live?" But, "Should he be permitted to die?"
Although the answer to both questions may be "no," the latter negative offers greater satisfaction. Most compelling of the arguments for making him live is that McVeigh, like all lunatic brats, revels in the limelight. What greater glory than to die publicly and, in his disturbed mind, righteously?
The quintessential loser wins finally through the ultimate act of martyrdom. Contrary to his claim of victory against a repressive government - collateral damage and all - McVeigh failed in his so-called "revolutionary act" when he bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City.
As Aitan Goelman, a federal prosecutor in the case, wrote recently in a review of a new McVeigh biography:
"Far from precipitating a war between the government and citizens, (the bombing) generated widespread abhorrence for McVeigh's act and sympathy for his victims. Worse, from McVeigh's point of view, the federal government managed to capture and put on trial those responsible - without abrogating the Constitution, declaring martial laws, or sending 'stormtroopers' to confiscate firearms from law-abiding Americans."
McVeigh's failure to engender sympathy in life for his misguided cause leaves him little recourse but to seek same in death. Whatever consolation might come of avenging a loved one's death is diminished by the granting of what amounts to a final favor to the criminal.
By executing McVeigh, we also risk encouraging other members of the lunatic fringe. We've seen enough copycat crimes to know that such risk isn't merely speculative.
As for the families' need for revenge, I can only suggest that death by injection is a far, far better thing to do (ital) for (end ital) McVeigh than the alternative of life in prison among an inmate population that would view his murdering of babies and toddlers as unforgivably unmanly.
Don't think that McVeigh, in forfeiting his appeals, didn't consider the likely quality of his prison life and the anonymity of being just another convict rather than the blaze o' glory warrior he erroneously perceives himself to be.
But then, perhaps I am too tough on poor McVeigh. Perhaps a quick, relatively humane death by injection is sufficient punishment and will bring peace to his victims' families. Even so, I'd rather deprive him of the thing he relishes - attention and martyrdom - in the knowledge that a hellish life in ignominy is far worse punishment to a murdering narcissist than a vainglorious, celebrated death.