Summer 2001, Vol. 4, No. 2

Summer 2001

Quick Links:
Related Articles
Waco Redux: Trial and Error, Religion in the News, Fall 2000

Spiritual Victimology, Religion in the News, Fall 1999

Preaching the Word in Littleton, Religion in the News, Summer 1999

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Other articles
in this issue

From the Editor: The Minister, the Rabbi, and the Baccalaureate

Idol Threats

The Pope Among the Orthodox

Faith-Based Update: Bipartisan Breakdown

The Perils of Polling

The Rael Deal.

Superceding the Jews

Jamming the Jews

Evangelism in a Chilly Climate

Correspondence: Palestinians and Israelis


Purging Ourselves of Timothy McVeigh
by Edward Linenthal


From the first shocking scenes of the bloodied survivors emerging out of the ruins of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and the iconic image of fireman Chris Fields holding the broken body of one-year-old Baylee Almon in his arms, media coverage has struggled to locate the Oklahoma City bombing in an appropriate story line.

For the first 48 hours, when it was widely reported that foreign terrorists (probably "Islamic militants") were responsible, the bombing was understood as yet another example of America being victimized by aliens—an innocent nation in a wicked world—and enthusiastic calls for righteous vengeance littered opinion pieces and letters to the editors in newspapers across the land. If Oklahoma City was like Beirut, it was because foreign terrorists had defiled America’s "heartland" with alien forms of terror, shattering a widespread sense of American "innocence," as if the nation fell into the harsh and often murderous realities of history for the first time with the body count in Oklahoma City.

With the arrest of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols several days after the bombing, however, explanatory narratives became more complicated. The uncomfortable realization that this horror had been carried out by white male Gulf War veterans—one of them a decorated veteran at that—sparked the excavation of a completely different story of American identity. It was a story of a nation tormented by enduring legacies of racism, xenophobia, and violent populism, of virulent cancers emerging from the national body, with the Oklahoma City bombing seen as a tumor, an indicator of more profound internal disease.

Enduring convictions of innocence could only be maintained by distancing McVeigh and Nichols from "real" America and "real" Americans. Harper’s publisher John MacArthur said of his media colleagues, "They are going to turn them into oddball crazies, caricaturing McVeigh as a trailer park terrorist, which is no better than the caricature of the Arabs." Indeed, McVeigh and Nicols were called "monsters," "drifters," "loners," and "reptilian-like murderers." Time’s Lance Morrow portrayed the perpetrators as violent resident aliens existing at the nation’s "delusional margins." The editors of U.S. News and World Report assured the public that the lesson to take from Oklahoma was not that the American character was flawed but that it was "still incandescent."

To be sure, some outside the American media mainstream saw the perpetrators as representing an authentic if virulent strain of national identity. Jonathan Friedland, the Washington correspondent for the London Guardian, told a National Public Radio audience that McVeigh struck him as "wholly American, from his belief in government conspiracy, to his infatuation with guns, even to his ‘loner’ persona." In an angry column in the Nation, Katha Pollitt declared, "If we’re seriously interested in understanding how a young man could blow up a building full of hundreds of people, why not start by acknowledging that the state he now claims to oppose gave him his first lesson in killing?"

McVeigh and Nichols were contaminants of the body politic precisely because they could finally not be dismissed as alien beings. They had undergone the traditional rite of passage for American males, service in the Armed Forces, and emerged not as able citizens but as mass murderers, imagining themselves warriors in a holy crusade against the federal government in which body counts of civilians were a necessary part of the struggle.

This sense of contamination is evident in the hundreds of letters from schoolchildren in Michigan, where the perpetrators spent time at James Nichols’ farm and reportedly attended meetings of the Michigan Militia. The letters plead for Oklahoma City schoolchildren not to hate them for being from Michigan. The sense of shame was so great that several early unsolicited memorial ideas came from Michigan residents who thought memorial suggestion would be a way of "doing penance" for living in a state widely viewed after the bombing as a bastion for the extreme and often violent world view of the militias—a state sometimes called "Militiagan."

Beyond Michigan, the sense of contamination spread to the small towns in New York state where McVeigh lived and went to school. Students soon learned that they were labeled as being "from McVeigh-land," and called "The Bombers." A sense of contamination by association was also felt by residents of Kingman, Arizona, the home of accomplice Michael Fortier and a place where McVeigh lived for a brief time; of Junction City, Kansas, where McVeigh rented the Ryder truck that carried the bomb; of Herington, Kansas, where Terry Nichols lived. McVeigh’s motel room in Junction City was remodeled, and residents of Herington took great pains to let representatives of the national media know that since Nichols had only lived there for a few weeks he was not one of them.

The threat of the toxic presence of the perpetrators was in evidence as well during the planning of the Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation’s Memorial Center, as the desire for a museum exhibition to tell the story of April 19th and its aftermath clashed with an equally strong desire to prevent pollution of the memorial center by inclusion of the faces or stories of the perpetrators. Planners struggled with an exhibition script that included "the dark side." Eventually they settled on small side rooms that told the story of the arrest and trial of McVeigh and Nichols with little visual representation.

The bombing not only sparked explorations of American innocence, violence, and the threat of contamination from perpetrators. It quickly became cultural capital to be used in ongoing battles in the culture wars. Oklahoma City figured prominently in often angry discussions about the complicity—if any—of hate radio; in the suddenly perceived threat from militia culture; in debates over habeas corpus reform; in a renewed call for limits to free speech; and, of course, in debates over the death penalty.

Both civic and religious arguments over the death penalty—its morality or immorality, fairness or unfairness, the traumatic impact or therapeutic value of restricted or general public viewing of the execution—were predictable, enduring arguments set in a new context. But the horror of the event, the complete lack of even the most minute sign of remorse from McVeigh in word or gesture, and (shortly before his execution) his cold, calculating characterization of the 19 children murdered as "collateral damage," made the case against this particular death sentence less persuasive for many.

An overwhelming majority of Americans quite simply believed that Timothy McVeigh deserved to die for his horrendous crime. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll in early May 2001 showed that while 59 percent of Americans "generally support the death penalty and believe McVeigh should receive it," 22 percent "generally opposed the death penalty, but support executing McVeigh." Only 16 percent "generally oppose capital punishment even in McVeigh’s case."

Sentiment for the death penalty was strong in Oklahoma City and the wider culture from the time of McVeigh’s arrest. Darcy O’Brien, a Tulsa writer, observed that "this is, after all, the Bible Belt, where ideas of the noble savage or the perfectibility of humankind have never cut much ice. People here may pray to Jesus, but they believe in the God of wrath." This wrath was expressed in early suggestions that the Oklahoma City memorial be a place for the torture of the perpetrators, a place where their heads would hang on a pole, a place where they would be executed.

Yet, as they mobilized their resources to help people struggle with the meaning of the bombing, religious leaders struggled with the imperative of forgiveness. Rev. Gene Garrison, pastor of First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City said, "I know I’m supposed to pray for the people who did this, but I’m finding that very hard to do when I look at these little babies." Shortly after the bombing, Rev. Nick Harris of the First Methodist Church—so badly damaged in the bombing that the congregation was forced elsewhere for services—declared, "If we are going to be a church and not a social club…we must pray for those who did this."

Catholics took a strong stand against McVeigh’s execution. Pope John Paul II asked President Bush to spare his life, and a number of American cardinals spoke out against it. Our Sunday Visitor argued that execution closed off any chance for McVeigh’s eventual repentance, and Commonweal declared that the "consequence of a murder and of a legal execution is the same: A human life is ended by an act of human will. Taking life to show life should not be taken doesn’t parse."

A broad coalition of religious leaders urged President Bush to enact a moratorium on all federal executions and grant clemency to McVeigh, among them the National Council of Churches, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, USA, the American Baptist Church, USA, the Autocephalous Holy Eastern Orthodox Church, the Archdiocese of the Americas, the United Church of Christ, the Reformed Church in America, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) the Church of the Brethren, and leaders of Reformed Judaism.

In 1998, a year after McVeigh was sentenced to die, some evangelicals expressed doubts about the death penalty because of then Texas Governor George W. Bush’s refusal to grant clemency to convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker, who had declared that she had been born again in prison. The influential evangelical magazine Christianity Today called the death penalty "unfair and discriminatory."

One of the most articulate death-penalty opponents was Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie, a translator in the Social Security office, was murdered in the bombing. Welch, who owns a Texaco service station in Oklahoma City, has conveyed to many audiences his journey from rage at the perpetrators to recalling his daughter’s opposition to the death penalty, and his eventual conviction that he wished to honor her memory through his work against it. Rooting his conviction in the Roman Catholic tradition, Welch believes that McVeigh’s execution will continue a cycle of violence and redeem no one from their grief. How, he asks, "can we live in the Gospel’s message to love our neighbor if we deliberately kill him? Would Jesus pull the switch or inject the needle?"

In September 1998, Welch traveled to Buffalo, New York, to meet with Bill McVeigh, Timothy’s father and his sister Jennifer. They spent two hours together, and when he left, he hugged them both. He told the Protestant magazine Guideposts, "I’d gone to church all my life and had never felt as close to God as I did at that moment."

Death penalty opponents carried out public vigils praying for McVeigh, churches rang bells at the time of the execution, and Scripture was put to use to make the case against state-sponsored killing. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Garry Wills observed that "Bible-quoting fundamentalists" ignore the "one place in the Gospels where Jesus deals with capital punishment" (John 8:3-11), and then observes that while George Bush claimed Jesus was his favorite philosopher, "he did not hesitate to endorse the execution of 152 human beings in Texas," where numerous public defenders were "sanctioned by the Texas bar for legal misbehavior or incompetence." Mr. Bush, Wills remarked, "clearly needs some deeper consultation with the philosopher of his choice."

Opponents also argued that there were other ways to remove the contamination of a mass murderer from the body politic through a sentence of life without parole. By so doing, they argued, McVeigh would not be given the chance to choose a martyr’s death. "[E]xecuted now, he goes to his death young, vibrant, defiant—heroic to the twisted and angry," Paul Finkelman, a law professor at the University of Tulsa, told USA Today. "Left in his cell, he ages. The ‘where are they now’ pictures will show McVeigh wrinkled, raving and angry, frustrated to be alive."

Supporters of the death penalty also made use of Scripture: Mormons cited passages from the Hebrew Bible (Num. 35:16) and the Book of Mormon, "Woe unto the murderer who deliberately killeth, for he shall die." (2 Nep. 9:35). Evangelical theologian Carl Henry cited Genesis 9:6 ("whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed"), and Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries declared, "[N]owhere does Jesus set aside the requirements of civil law."

Conservative evangelicals (including the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country), Orthodox Jews, and Muslims supported capital punishment in some cases, and they were joined in this particular instance by many members of religious communities formally opposed to the death penalty. Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, a Roman Catholic, was not persuaded by Roman Catholic opposition. "Anyone who would do something this horrific, anyone who murders 168 of our neighbors and smash into oblivion the lives of 19 children deserves the death penalty. I mean, that’s real simple."

Many family members of those murdered and survivors understood that the execution and their right to view it on closed-circuit television in Oklahoma City might be traumatic, might not assuage their grief, but would finally remove the contaminating presence of Timothy McVeigh from the body politic and their lives. Family members observed that even behind bars, McVeigh was present in interviews and in letters he wrote that were made public, and that his death would at least silence his voice forever.

And where many opponents of the death penalty hoped that clemency might enable McVeigh to repent and restore his connection to the body politic, many supporters of the death penalty perceived his very body to be toxic. Just as there were those who opposed bringing the bodies of the Jonestown dead into Delaware after their mass suicide in 1978, so there was opposition to burying McVeigh’s body in American soil. Already deprived of the right of military burial by legislation passed in 1997, McVeigh’s mortal remains were cremated and the ashes scattered at an undisclosed location. Even this was too good for the editors of National Review, who declared that he should be dragged "through the desert behind horses until the bastard disappears."

The horror unleashed on April 19, 1995 remains unfinished business. It endures in the active grief of the family members, survivors, and rescuers who engaged the event through memorial-building. It endures in the media’s infatuation with the language of pop psychology, as terms like "closure" and "healing process" often replaced the traditional religious language through which people had engaged loss for centuries.

It endures as well in the increasingly intense religious debate over the death penalty on the meaning of justice, vengeance, forgiveness, reconciliation, repentance, redemption, and the sacredness of life. And it endures in an equally intense cultural experience of the symbolic power of Timothy McVeigh and his threat to the purity of the body politic through his deeds, his continued life, and even the presence of his body in the soil of the nation.

As much as it is the final step of a legal process, the death penalty is a civil religious ritual of exclusion and purification, enacted on the alien bodies of domestic perpetrators. How this ritual relates to the more recognizably religious debate is not entirely clear. What is clear is that the execution of Timothy McVeigh will end neither the intensifying debate nor the lasting appeal of the ritual.

Related Articles:

Waco Redux: Trial and Error, Religion in the News, Fall 2000

Spiritual Victimology, Religion in the News, Fall 1999

Preaching the Word in Littleton, Religion in the News, Summer 1999


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