A Federal Execution

The execution of Timothy J. McVeigh, scheduled for the morning of May 16, will be the first federal execution in almost four decades. This fact alone should occasion some soul searching, because it underscores the fact that our government firmly maintains its commitment to capital punishment. We therefore stand alone in approving a sanction that all of Western Europe and even Russia and South Africa have done away with.

The attorney general himself is playing a significant role in the forthcoming execution that is to take place in the death chamber of the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. John Ashcroft has granted permission for scores of survivors and victims’ relatives to observe as Mr. McVeigh dies by lethal injection. Thanks to Mr. Ashcroft, they will be able to watch on closed-circuit television in another federal prison building in Oklahoma City—the site of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building April 19, 1995, that killed 168 people, including 19 children who were in a day care center on the first floor. Ten, to be chosen by lot, will be able to watch from an observation room at the prison itself. Thus, “all witnesses will see McVeigh on the execution table,” Mr. Ashcroft has said, alluding to the cruciform gurney to which the prisoner will be strapped. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, who strongly objects to the plan, has compared watching him die to watching the deadly spectacles that were popular in the Colosseum in ancient Rome.


When a Terre Haute prison representative makes the official announcement that Timothy McVeigh is dead, many around the country will undoubtedly rejoice. Those in favor of capital punishment, moreover, will find a dark encouragement in the fact that he does not fit the profile of the majority of death row inmates: he is white and he is not from a poor background. There can be no claims here about issues of racism or poverty in the imposition of the death penalty. Nor has he shown any remorse for the horrendous act for which he was responsible. Indeed, he has chillingly referred to the death of the 19 children as “collateral damage.” For proponents, Mr. McVeigh consequently represents an almost textbook argument for the continued use of the death penalty.

But not all are of this opinion. Bud Welch’s 23-year-old daughter, Julie—a translator for the Social Security Administration—died in the explosion. They had planned to have lunch the day of her death, as they did every Wednesday. But not only has he no desire to witness the execution; he has become an outspoken opponent of capital punishment, traveling throughout the country to speak against it. How, he has asked, can watching Mr. McVeigh die bring closure and peace to the victims’ families? And yet that is the argument that many relatives of murder victims frequently advance. In an address before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., last May, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles made specific reference to the position taken by Mr. Welch, who knew “that capital punishment only deepens the emotional wounds opened by the initial act of violence.” The cardinal went on to say that the witness of Bud Welch embodies “Jesus Christ’s message of hope, forgiveness and reconciliation.”

Opponents of capital punishment believe that it is contrary to the inherent dignity of all human beings. In the case of Mr. McVeigh, it is doubly abhorrent, because it cuts off the possibility of the repentance he does not presently acknowledge. In a statement in 1980, the U.S. bishops wrote, in fact, that “infliction of the death penalty extinguishes possibilities for reform...[and] cuts off the possibility...for moral growth in a life which has been seriously deformed.” Timothy McVeigh is still a young man in his early 30’s. Were he to remain in prison for the years ahead, instead of being put to death, he might find a needed remorse in his heart. But he will be denied that opportunity, and in the eyes of violent right-wing extremists he may even be raised to the status of hero.

Despite the darkness that the execution will signify for those who believe in Jesus’ Easter message of reconciliation—Mr. McVeigh will be put to death during the fifth week of Easter—signs are becoming increasingly apparent that support for the death penalty has fallen. When the convictions of over a dozen inmates on Illinois’s death row were overturned, Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on capital punishment. Other states are considering following that good example. Over a year ago, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged then-President Clinton to suspend all federal executions. We now call upon President Bush to heed this same proposal.

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12 years ago
Your editorial of May 7 is the best statement of the “why” of anti-capital punishment I have ever seen. Your statement transcends a single religion and speaks eloquently to all.

Thank you for your succinct thought.

12 years ago
The editorial “A Federal Execution” (5/7) inserted a note of sanity amid the spectacle of the media coverage and promotion of a federal execution. Erich Fromm noted that we are on the threshold of civilization and wondered if we would make it over. If the event of June 11, 2001, is an example of our deeds, I shudder at the answer.

The arguments presented in the America editorial against capital punishment are powerful: the case for rehabilitation; the parent of one of those killed, who has become an opponent of capital punishment; as well as other considerations, like the fact that support for the death penalty has fallen; and the statistics on countries that have outlawed it. And most vital, of course, the message of Jesus on reconciliation. Somehow, we have lost sight of this. “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace, Where there is hatred, let me sow love, Where there is injury, pardon.” Where were these words of St. Francis on June 11, 2001?


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