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
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