Public Nuisances

Posted: May 10, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- The gruesome carnival that is Timothy McVeigh at sundown was going to pass without comment by me. He and his horrid crime are best contemplated without the buzz of contemporary punditry. Think of what he did, and then think of the Old Testament and the truths that it teaches; or think of the Holocaust and the truths that are not learned. Two matters have disrupted my plans. Opposed as I am to capital punishment, I signed a letter from Citizens for a Moratorium on Federal Executions addressed to the president. The gravamen of its argument is not quite mine. Then Gore Vidal from his retirement community on Italy's sunny Amalfi coast announced his "mysterious three-year relationship" with McVeigh. Let me say this much. A federal moratorium on capital punishment would be a good start toward opening a debate on violence in American society. The dignity of human life is questioned throughout American society. An end to capital punishment might serve as a beginning to a discussion of life in society, in citizenship and in the arts. That is my reasoning. Other signers of the letter to the president argue that capital punishment as implemented nowadays might be "unfair" owing to "geographic and racial disparities." I doubt it is "unfair," but I have no doubt that it contributes to the disregard for individual life that we see in our society. That brings me to Vidal and his "mysterious three-year relationship" with McVeigh. The relationship is a parasitic relationship. In this case, Vidal is feeding on the dead. For years, a certain kind of literary peacock has linked up with a death row brute to exploit the macabre publicity. Mailer did it with Gary Gilmore and with Jack Henry Abbott. Now Vidal does it with McVeigh. Always the writer hopes to float some preposterous notion. In the case of Abbott, Mailer perceived artistic afflatus. There were whiffs of Shakespeare in Abbott's creepy letters to Mailer. These encounters with brutes rarely end happily. In the case of Abbott, after Mailer got him out of the hoosegow he promptly murdered again. Vidal's hero McVeigh has about as much chance of murdering again as Mailer's Gilmore. He is going to be executed, but apparently not before he makes himself into a hero o,r even better an anti-hero, with moral idiots such as Vidal. Naturally Vidal perceives in McVeigh all sorts of unlikely virtues. During a three-year correspondence, Vidal has told The Washington Post, he discovered that McVeigh "is a very superior sort of young man." Oh yes, and he might even be as talented a writer as Abbott. Vidal asseverates that McVeigh is "very, very bright." He writes with "perfect" spelling, punctuation and grammar. "He is a junkie of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights." Actually, McVeigh is a pinhead. He has a simpleton's view of the Constitution. He is a crank, the kind of know-it-all who sits on a stool at a neighborhood bar (in an admittedly down-scale neighborhood) issuing arcane judgments on every event discoursed upon on the evening TV news. TV, by the way, seems to be this "very very bright" fellow's main intellectual source. Vidal, too, is a crank. On a wide array of issues from religion to economics he holds ferociously to old-fashioned views once the intellectual property of the Know-Nothings, whose 1856 presidential candidate was Millard Fillmore. As a consequence of his three-year correspondence with McVeigh, Vidal will be one of the condemned's five guests witnessing his last breath. Vidal will then go back to Italy to write a magazine article about it all. Doubtless he will present McVeigh's view that the American political system has much in common with that of China. Vidal agrees. He will reiterate his own view that Attorney General John Ashcroft makes decisions "worthy of the Third Reich." Then Vidal will somehow come around to reminding us that he opposes capital punishment. Yet what Vidal will actually accomplish is the trivialization of one of the most heinous crimes ever committed in this country. He will be participating in the spread of violence and the disregard for human life that is all around us. Which reminds me of another reason I oppose capital punishment. It makes evil appear heroic. If McVeigh were locked away for the remainder of his life, isolated from hucksters such as Vidal, there would be no chance to romanticize his crank views and his evil self. McVeigh would simply be gone, and in Oklahoma City the monuments to his victims would not have to compete with Gore Vidal's perversity.