Politics & Policy

Humanizing Evil

Yes, Tim McVeigh was human. That is why he deserved to die.

Robert Nigh, Tim McVeigh’s lawyer, just concluded his statement about his client’s execution. He explained that we didn’t just kill Tim McVeigh today, but “we did much more than that. We also killed Sgt. McVeigh,” who served his country. “We killed Bill and Micki’s son this morning.”

Afterwards, MSNBC’s Brian Williams suggested that death-penalty supporters will no doubt be upset by Mr. Nigh’s attempt to humanize Tim McVeigh (as this happened just five minutes ago, there are no transcripts available for exact quotes).

For all I know this may be true, though I’ve never been one to revere Mr. Williams’s ability to understand what people to his right actually believe. But I for one think we should humanize McVeigh. Humanize him, then euthanize him.

This may be the biggest misunderstanding on the part of death-penalty opponents. From Dead Man Walking to the incessant refrains of the Phil Donahues and the Jesse Jacksons, those who support capital punishment are constantly told something along the lines of, “You need to understand we are taking a human life.”

Well, that’s true. But it is a statement of fact that most reasonable proponents of the death penalty understand just fine, thank you. But for some reason, anti-capital punishment folks think that if they keep telling us that, somehow it will change our minds.

I think it’s a good thing to humanize people on death row for all sorts of reasons. But the most important one is simply this: If we lost sight of the fact that the executed were human beings, then there would be no point in having the death penalty. Whatever your primary criterion for supporting capital punishment — retribution, justice, deterrence, “closure” for the victims, etc. — if we forget that the person being killed is a human being, than the act itself becomes morally weightless.

For example, there’s an interesting argument that pops up from time to time among scholars of Hitler and Nazism. There’s a creeping tendency when discussing Hitler to make him into “the personification of evil,” a “force of pure malevolence,” or some other description that obscures the fact that Hitler was a personally charming man who went to the bathroom like everybody else.

It is relevant that Hitler was good to his dogs, because if we make him into some sort of cosmic force, a tool of God or Satan, akin to a disease or a hurricane, we in a sense absolve Hitler of personal responsibility and we dupe ourselves into believing that another person like him cannot come along. The overused admonition, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it,” is apt. If we lose sight that all villains are humans we will not be equipped to see evil when it is right in front of us. As with Hitler, being human provides no immunity from the applicability of Justice; it confers it.

People say, “If you could only meet the people on death row you would understand that they are human beings and see nothing good in killing them.” I understand and respect this assertion as being largely true. But it is of a piece with people who say, “If you could only meet a little boy dying of starvation or a little girl dying of leukemia, you would advocate for policy X or more funding for program Y.” I know for a fact that if I were to visit an animal-testing lab my intellectual position would likely succumb to my emotional concerns.

That is all part of being human. But emotion is not an argument. No decent person would wage war on another country if they could see the faces of the innocent victims and their families. Few decent people would limit funding for medical research if they could feel the agony of those afflicted. In short, decent people would be hard pressed to ever make hard but necessary decisions if they had to be exposed to every emotional agony flowing from such decisions.

Timothy McVeigh was a human being. He was a man with many good qualities, I am sure. Most of the people who had met him were shocked by how charming and affable he could be. His family probably and understandably feels a profound sadness today. That’s all good to know. But it changes nothing in my mind; he was a human being who made heinous decisions of his own free will that even many death-penalty opponents believe warrant execution. We do not execute hurricanes for killing people just because hurricanes possess no free will. We execute human beings who murder people precisely because they have free will.

And those who believe that the McVeigh family’s pain or Tim McVeigh’s jocularity are not merely relevant but are of such weight so as to trump all other arguments are, in my mind, the very ones who don’t fully understand what it means to be a human being.


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