Posted: Jun 14, 2001 12:00 AM
"At 7 a.m. this morning, we killed Tim McVeigh, the person responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing," announced Robert Nigh, the murderer's lawyer. "But we did much more than that. We also killed Sergeant McVeigh. ... But much more importantly ... what we did this morning was to kill Tim McVeigh, friend to Bob Popovic, Allen Smith and Elizabeth McDermott. We killed Bill and Mickey's son this morning. And we killed Jennifer McVeigh's big brother." Throughout the day of McVeigh's execution, these comments were either denounced or praised by opponents or proponents of the death penalty. Those in favor of executing McVeigh - particularly the relatives of his victims - said that we shouldn't try to "humanize" McVeigh. Those in America and overseas who opposed the execution echoed these sentiments. In a typical television appearance, another McVeigh lawyer explained earlier, "Tim has the same fear of death that any human being does." Indeed, humanization is a common refrain among opponents of the death penalty such as Phil Donahue, Jesse Jackson and fans of the movie "Dead Man Walking"; they say: "You need to understand, we are taking a human life" or "so-and-so is still a human being." In fact, that's the point. I am in favor of both the death penalty and humanizing those who receive it. Humanize, then euthanize. If we lose sight of the fact that the executed are human beings, then there's no point in having a death penalty. Whatever your primary criterion for supporting capital punishment - retribution, justice, deterrence, closure for the victims - if we forget that the person being killed is a person, often with family and friends, then the act itself becomes morally weightless, akin to turning off a machine. Consider a frequent argument about Hitler. Scholars of Nazism often confront a dilemma: the understandable temptation to portray Hitler as "the personification of evil," a "force of pure malevolence" or some other description that obscures the fact that Hitler was a personally charming man who went to the bathroom like everybody else. It is relevant that Hitler was good to his dogs, because if we make him into an impenetrable cosmic force, a tool of God or Satan, akin to a disease or a hurricane, in a sense we absolve Hitler of personal responsibility and we dupe ourselves into believing that another person like him cannot come along. The overused admonition, "Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it," is apt. If we lose sight that all villains are humans, we will not be equipped to see evil when it is in front of us. Hitler was a person with free will. And it is that human free will that makes us eligible to receive justice. When a boulder falls on someone's head, we do not demand justice of the rock, but we do of the person who pushed it. People say, "If you could only meet the people on death row, you would understand that they are human beings and see nothing good in killing them." I respect this as being largely true. But it is like saying, "If you could only meet a little boy dying of starvation or a little girl dying of leukemia, you would advocate for policy X or more funding for program Y." Yes, but this is part of being human and making tough decisions. If we had to personally confront the tragedy that comes with such choices, all hard or necessary decisions would become much harder, but no less necessary. Timothy McVeigh was a human being. He was a man with many good qualities, and his family deserves our sympathy. But that doesn't change the fact that he chose to do something even many opponents of the death penalty see as deserving of execution. Free will is what makes us human. We do not execute hurricanes or floods or lightning bolts, because these things do not have free will. But we do execute human beings who murder people precisely because they have free will. And those who believe that the McVeigh family's pain or Tim McVeigh's alleged charm are of such weight so as to trump all other arguments are, in my mind, the very ones who don't fully understand what it means to be a human being.