An 8-year-old boy’s writing on a sidewalk “Let’s fry McVeigh” is about as chilling as an adult’s writing in a letter to the editor “As a civilized society, we cannot get rid of him [McVeigh] fast enough,” both of which are about as chilling as closed-circuit TV being made available to people whose relatives died during the Oklahoma City bombing so that they can witness McVeigh’s death. All this is evidence of this society’s subscribing staunchly and fully to principles of retaliatory justice: If someone hurts me, I must repay that hurt in equal coin—an unwritten amendment to the Constitution perhaps, sponsored by the legendary West Virginians: the Hatfields and the McCoys.
I think that Gore Vidal has it precisely right when he suggests that Timothy McVeigh is an intensely moral individual. Fully subscribed to those principles of retaliatory justice that our society also subscribes to, Timothy McVeigh “got” some Feds and their affiliates for what the Feds had done, just as we are now “getting” McVeigh for what he has done. By principles of retaliatory justice, we—the bigger bully—get to kill McVeigh—the martyr. And so the feud goes on, with the little 8-year-old pavement artist perhaps being another Tim McVeigh in the making as he is practicing the obscene rhetoric of retaliatory justice.
It’s an absolute no-brainer to recognize that violence breeds violence. Societies that are primitive and UNcivilized enough to revel in retaliatory justice are inviting more violence, an obvious truth whether we’re talking road rage or Ariel Sharon’s bulldozing houses in Ghaza. There is no doubt in my mind that, as a civilized society, we have every right to keep ourselves safe from harm, even to the point of killing in the face of immediate danger when harm is absolutely not to be kept from us in any other conceivable way. But we can keep ourselves safe from Timothy McVeigh without killing him. Keeping him in a secure environment is the limit of our right as a CIVILIZED and a MORALLY SOUND society.
A Timothy McVeigh who has access to learning, access to contemplation, access to working for his victims, access to insights through self-improvement, such a Timothy McVeigh will in the long run do more for the civilizing of this society than he could ever do by his death. Retaliatory justice is wrong justice, no matter whether it comes from the big bully in the person of society/government or from the little bully in the person of a terrorist in or out of uniform; indeed, I miss the cries of Christians at this point to admonish us to turn the other cheeks and to love our enemies.