Am I the only one bored by the latest McVeigh story? It’s an awfully inappropriate pun, but the word that comes to mind is overkill. Tim McVeigh is a mass murderer. He is guilty. We know he’s guilty. He’s admitted he’s guilty. This screw-up by the FBI, as monumental as it is, raises no “profound” or “disturbing” questions about the death penalty. It might, however, raise some profound or disturbing questions about the FBI. But the fact that a bunch of, in all likelihood, superfluous documents relating to a confessed mass murderer were not administered properly, is not a travesty of justice. Of more salient significance is the fact that it provides ample opportunity for the press to exploit the tragedy for at least another month.
Last night I watched a disgusting hour-long segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes on McVeigh. Earlier in the day, all of the Sunday morning shows spent a considerable amount of time on McVeigh too, though at least Fox News concentrated on the FBI angle rather than the lugubrious remorse-pornography found elsewhere.
But 60 Minutes was the worst. They spent half the show cutting between an interview with McVeigh and a “reaction room” full of victims and their families. McVeigh would say how he had murdered a bunch of people because of X, Y, or Z, and the families were then asked, “Well, what do you think of X, Y, or Z?”
I have the transcript from last night’s program. I’m refraining from quoting from it, not because I’m too lazy to cut and paste it, but because I don’t care what McVeigh has to say.
Imagine if 60 Minutes had issued a similar broadcast with a Nazi and some Holocaust survivors. What exactly is gained from a debate between murders and their victims? “I killed all of those Jews, Catholics and Gypsies because they are subhuman scum.”
Cut to Jewish, Gypsy, and Catholic survivors sitting around a table: “We are not subhuman scum….”
This is an edifying debate?
As John Ashcroft said a month ago, “As an American who cares about our culture, I want to restrict a mass murderer’s access to the public podium. I do not want anyone to be able to purchase access to the podium of America with the blood of 168 innocent victims.”
Unfortunately, most of the media sees it differently. Everyone from Gore Vidal, who’s covering the execution for Vanity Fair, to each of the networks, believes that if you kill a bunch of people, you automatically become fascinating and your ideas are noteworthy. Vidal told ABC news recently, “I became fascinated by [McVeigh]. First of all he’s a very good, clear writer and he knows a lot about the Constitution and is very interested in the Bill of Rights.”
Gosh, what a shame he had to kill all of those people to get noticed.
Indeed, I’ll be even more honest. Not only do I not care what McVeigh has to say, I’m not particularly interested in what his victims have to say either. Of course, I have great sympathy for them and I am as concerned as the next guy that they get treated with respect. But, how respectful is it to take these people and make them do a little remorse-dance for the viewers? Is anyone shocked that these people miss their loved ones? Is anyone blown away by the revelation that they are very angry at Tim McVeigh and think he was wrong to do what he did? Is it anything but macabre to watch them get angrier still when they see that McVeigh won’t apologize?
I don’t know if it’s the soccer-mommification of cable news, the race to the bottom of television competition, or the woefully self-indulgent nature of American culture today, but personally, I find the wallowing in pity and remorse of American journalism to be the most repugnant development of the last decade. I used to think it was mostly Bill Clinton’s fault, with his lip biting, I-feel-your-pain, wet-eyed blather. But I’m beginning to think he was simply the manifestation of a trend. When you look back at the news stories of the last decade, it’s amazing how many of them — JFK Jr., Columbine, etc. — involve the media publicly wallowing in remorse for days on end.
It’s not news to show people coping with their grief and turning them into celebrities because of their personal tragedies. It’s exploitation.
The Death Penalty Still Works
And speaking of exploitation, this argument that the FBI screw-up is an indictment of the death penalty in general baffles me. Yesterday on ABC’s This Week, George Will pointed out the obvious facts about McVeigh: “He’s white. He’s well represented. He’s sane. And it was pre-meditated.”
To which Derek McGinty replied, “…and he didn’t get a fair shake. So what does that say about what happens to the poor black or Latino man in Texas who doesn’t have a big-time lawyer?”
Andrew Sullivan thinks the missing documents could be a “pivotal moment in our consideration of the death penalty.” Here we have the highest profile case imaginable, federal authorities running the show, rather than some local sheriff, a smart, white defendant, good lawyers…and they still screw it up! What chance [for] a poor black guy with a state defender?”
And then there’s Phil Donahue, who said Sunday on Meet The Press, “I think this is an example, is Exhibit A for what’s wrong with the death penalty. We have 3,700 people on death row, 3,700. How many of their boxes have been lost? How many documents were not turned over to their defense lawyers?”
Now, correct me if I am wrong, but these missing documents don’t exonerate Tim McVeigh. The wrong man was never close to being executed. In fact, death-penalty opponents have never been able to point to anyone who’s been wrongly executed. When McVeigh confessed, he surely assumed the FBI had all the evidence against him. When McVeigh waived his right to appeal, he surely suspected that all of the evidence was collected and weighed.
Indeed, the comparison between McVeigh and the average black or Latino on death row is entirely specious. McVeigh killed 168 people and wounded thousands of others in the worst example of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. Is it any surprise that document management was difficult? Do people really think the circumstances governing a robbery-murder at a grocery store are the same as those involving a Ryder truck with 7,000 pounds of explosives at a Federal building?
Nobody has suggested that these documents are or could be substantively exculpatory. Indeed, the only way these documents could have helped McVeigh is if it turns out they would have been useful for McVeigh’s lawyers to get him off on a technicality of some kind. I know there are people in the American Bar Association who think it’s wonderful when guilty people are freed by “good” lawyering, but let’s not pretend that “good lawyering” and justice are necessarily synonymous.
Personally, I think the death penalty is a no-brainer as a philosophical and moral issue. All of the heavy breathing about rage and retribution being wrong miss the simple fact that rage and retribution are fine if aimed at evil acts. Sure, there’s a good argument to be found over the government’s competence to ensure that the death penalty be enforced properly, but that argument is procedural and, in this case, hypothetical.
And yet, the media drags in these hypothetical “disturbing questions” about the death penalty and Tim McVeigh as if they were somehow relevant, in no small part because to do so provides some cover for their invasive exploitation of a tragedy. Regardless, the reality in this circumstance is that it’s taken us six years to execute a man who deserves to be executed and who has even admitted to his murder. It’s time to put Tim McVeigh to death, even if that means the networks might lose a few ratings points in the process.
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