William F. Buckley
If attitudes, let alone rules, can be said to have been formulated at the dinner seminar, these would be they:

(1) Nobody is saying that Timothy McVeigh is the wrong guy. There is no outstanding legal appeal in his case save from the inventive mind of abolitionists, and what they would say is one or another form of: Capital punishment is wrong, and therefore shouldn't be inflicted on anybody. Anybody includes, though just barely, Timothy McVeigh.

(2) That his upcoming execution (May 16) sets a few records is interesting for data collectors, but not, really, for moralists. The last public execution was in 1936 in Owensboro, Ky., at the expense of one Rainey Bethea. The hanging was public, the spectators numerous (approximately 15,000), and the public reaction was such as to end public executions. The presiding official (he didn't want to be called a hangman because he winced at pulling the trigger: He made other people do that) had officiated at 70 other executions, not so many in contrast with the hangman at Nuremberg, who had done more than 400.

The other record is that there have been no federal executions since 1963. They were dragged to a near-halt by the Supreme Court, which, however, relicensed them, under specified circumstances, in Furman vs. Georgia, 1972.

(3) If public executions are de facto and in most states de jure outlawed, how is it that this one will be viewed by so many? Well, the jurisdiction is federal, and the situation is pretty well unique and, one hopes, will never be matched: 168 victims.

The tradition is long-lived that next of kin of victims may appear as witnesses at an execution. Why? Because they want whatever satisfaction is to be got from seeing effective retribution -- they see the killer killed. And then there is the touch of formality. Even as a doctor is there to record a death, and a marshall to sign a redundant death certificate, actually to see the killer die gives punctuational satisfaction to some people who want more merely than to read about it.

(4) Are there special circumstances, then, in the matter of Terre Haute, Ind.? Yes. The facility there provides room for about 30 witnesses. When word got out that 10 survivors and relatives of victims might arrange to witness the act, authorities were stunned to come upon 250 requests. Obviously these needed either to be denied or to be obliged after making special arrangements.


William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley, Jr. is editor-at-large of National Review, the prolific author of Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography.

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