Posted: Jun 14, 2001 12:00 AM
Well, you see, "in his opinion, in pursuing (his) goal, it was necessary." So a Tim McVeigh lawyer explains, in re the guerrilla action that gave a backyard terrorist his six years in the sun. Are we startled that, in lieu of last words, the perpetrator of the worst mass murder in U.S. history should have wrote out in his cell the worst poem in the English language? W.E. Henley's "Invictus" (Unconquered) -- now Timothy McVeigh's intellectual legacy -- is a too-famous hymn to culturally disconnected individualism. "Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods there be For my unconquerable soul." Worse turns to worst, philosophically as well as poetically: "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul." Henley's language is that of triumphant individualism: The night is black; times are tough; but I'm in control. Me! Henley and like-minded neo-pagans of the late Victorian era anticipated the Me Generation by a century, equating the inner life with heroism and triumph; intending no evil, certainly; unable, nevertheless, to control the construction others might place on their ideas. For instance, the individual as judge of right and wrong, according to his own criteria (because what other criteria could there be?) The trouble with the present authority shortage -- in culture, education, family life, religion, you name it -- is the shortage of authority. Masters of their fate, captains of their souls -- there are jillions of them out there -- make it up as they go. Nor has anyone the right to contradict them. There's no moral order, you see. The late Mr. McVeigh fits our times like a glove. Divine and human norms as to the wanton taking of human life don't restrain captains of their souls. A contemptuous snap of the fingers takes care of that piddling inhibition. We soul-captains outrank mere law. We soul-captains are the law. What Capt. McVeigh says, goes. Got that? Boom! The last 200 years of human history have been years of sustained warfare against norms. The French -- who love to lecture Americans on the iniquity of capital punishment -- kicked off the process by guillotining every "enemy of the people" on whom they could lay their hands. For the ancient moral order, France's soul-captains -- who, of course, were right because like McVeigh, they said they were -- substituted a wholly new moral order. Things have gone that way since then, at various levels of life, from cradle to grave. (It gets nuttier and nuttier, with every victory the soul-captains win. Some time, your breakfast fully digested, you could even take in the maunderings of noted Princeton University "bioethicist" and euthanasia advocate Peter Singer on the next frontier of sex -- human-animal relations; a.k.a bestiality.) The good news about Tim McVeigh is that while soul-captaincy enjoys great purchase on modern thought, the moral order somehow lives on: Didn't the vast majority of Americans grasp the need for equivalent retribution, viz., the death penalty administered to one who called dead children " collateral damage"? I don't hear a lot of appreciative murmurs concerning McVeigh's imputed right to decide who lives and who dies. The old moral order said individuals don't decide these things; it said we answer to God and to the law. The old moral order said a number of things, recently mocked and laughed at, which somehow seem less funny than they once did -- largely because they aren't comical at all, but are instead deeply serious. We live in the nuttiest of times. Out of nuttiness can come sanity all the same. Sometimes you have to see the consequences of nuttiness in order to appreciate them. Well, take a good look: 168 dead in Oklahoma City's federal building, because one Tim McVeigh, convinced there was no moral order he was obliged to recognize, appointed himself judge, jury and executioner.