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Published on Monday, April 23, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times
Watching McVeigh Die Is Victim Culture Gone Awry
by Norah Vincent
We are a nation of savages. Oh sure, we pretend to run our country by the rule of law. We dress ourselves up in due process, banging our gavels with stentorian aplomb. But beneath those pompous robes of jurisprudence, we're nothing but cannibals. And, this time, the example has been set right from the top.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, nearly "Borked" in the Senate for his stance against abortion, has announced that survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing and family members of the injured and deceased will be allowed to watch Timothy McVeigh's execution on closed-circuit television. Beverages may or may not be served.

By way of explanation, Ashcroft said: "The Department of Justice must make special provisions to assist the needs of the survivors and the victims' families." Ah. Needs. How thoughtful. I guess he means the need to watch the state put someone down like a dog, by lethal injection. Or maybe he means the need to relish the death spasms of another human being. Or the need to scrutinize the last words of a man who took no more pleasure in the deaths of his victims than their family members will take in his. Or is it all of the above?

How noble, how Christian of Ashcroft to cater so willingly to the "needs" of our very own willing executioners. And yet, how ironic. In V-chip nation, where parents are so concerned about the violence their children see on television, people are watching murder live on the box. What's more, they're having it piped in, special delivery, by none other than the Justice Department. So this is what's meant by compassionate conservatism.

Or is it the ultimate in reality TV? We shouldn't wonder, then, why Columbine-style school shootings are becoming a national sport. We blame it on Hollywood. We blame it on the gun lobby. But that's merely a deflection of responsibility. Our children's maladjustment is the fruit of our own example. We scratch our heads, wondering why, while overlooking the patent fact that those same children are being raised in a nation whose notion of justice is, apparently, one word long--payback--and whose thirst for blood outstrips human decency.

The implicit message is clear. When someone shatters your life, takes away everything you care about, decimates your emotional equilibrium, as happened to the victims and their families in Oklahoma City, you're not only entitled to kill him, you're entitled to make a public spectacle out of the killing, a media event. Think about it.

Put yourself in the shoes of a teenager whose world is almost entirely circumscribed by the walls of his school. Your girlfriend dumps you. You're denied a diploma. You've been put down repeatedly as a loser, socially crushed by the people whose opinion matters most to you, your peers. What now? In your solipsistic, adolescent worldview, you're as devastated as a parent who's lost a child or a husband who's lost his wife. And you want revenge. You want to kill the killer, and you want his death to be witnessed by the world because only then will it mean something to you. Only then will your "needs" be met, your grief assuaged. Sounds conspicuously like us, doesn't it?

So, are they really so different? McVeigh has been vilified of late, demonized even, for the apparent lack of remorse with which he dispatched his victims. I wonder, though, which is worse? The dismissal of human casualties as "collateral damage" or the rabid pursuit of necro-voyeurism? A demonstrated lack of remorse on the part of a terrorist, or an entire community's deliberate lobbying of a high-ranking public official for the grotesque privilege of watching someone squirm?

This is the height of victim culture gone awry in America. Because they are victims, because they have suffered grievous loss, the families and survivors of Oklahoma City consider it their holy right to ritualize public execution, a barbaric practice of which we as a country and as a purported civilization should be ashamed.

As for Ashcroft, he can never again lay rightful claim to his vainly touted title of "pro-life."

Norah Vincent is a freelance journalist who lives in New York City.

Copyright © 2001 Los Angeles Times


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