Time Magazine


Last Thursday 250 victims of Timothy McVeigh’s bomb—some who survived the blast, others who lost loved ones to it—were granted their request to witness his execution on closed-circuit television. In announcing this departure from normal procedure, Attorney General John Ashcroft spoke of the need “to close this chapter in their lives” and emphasized “the magnitude of this case.” (There are too many mourners, given the 168 killed, to fit into the prison observation room.)

Ashcroft is right to grant the survivors anything they think will help them through thenight. But there’s a question whether this execution will be a last milestone in their hellish journey or yet another trauma to absorb. Will public witness deliver a moment of catharsis, restore a measure of equilibrium to a shattered universe? Or is it one last way for McVeigh to victimize them? Many of the survivors obviously hope for a closure that has so far eluded them, for a miraculous lifting of their grief. But they have their expectations in check. “In the early stages I wanted to see the execution because I was hoping to hear ‘I’m sorry’ from McVeigh,” says Tom Kight, who is raising his eight-year-old granddaughter after his stepdaughter’s death. “But from what I gather there will be no remorse. The execution is just an end to one part of this. It’s not closure.” Priscilla Salyers, who was critically wounded, is watching not as “part of a healing process” but in solidarity with fellow victims.

Bud Welch, who lost his 23-year-old daughter to McVeigh, has decided to stay home. He once talked to a Texas couple who told him that if they had it to do over again they wouldn’t witness the death of the man who killed their son. “There is nothing good about watching a human take their last breath,” Welch says, “that is going to give you any peace.”

No one can be certain whether witnessing will help the survivors. But we can be sure that it helps McVeigh. He behaves as if the unexamined death is not worth dying. He needs a spectacle to confirm his sense of martyrdom. Indeed, his attorney told reporters that McVeigh’s desire for an audience was an argument in favor of granting his request for a public broadcast, when it should be an argument against. McVeigh will be the first condemned killer to get not only a last meal and last words but also a last photo op. Other moves to deprive him of the attention he craves—forbidding jailhouse interviews, limiting phone calls—are futile in light of the telecast. Cynthia Ferrell Ashwood, who lost her sister, hopes for a boycott, believing it would punish McVeigh more. “I would like him to die very much alone, which is how my sister died. It won’t hurt him for me to watch him die. It will just please him.”

The last public hanging took place in 1937 in front of the courthouse in Galena, Mo., where 500 onlookers scrambled for pieces of the rope used to hang Roscoe Jackson, who murdered a traveling salesman. Thirty-five years after that spectacle, capital punishment was banned in America. Since its reinstatement in 1976, the death penalty has been sanitized and closeted. The rope in the town square begat Old Sparky, which begat lethal injection, both administered behind tall prison walls. Bringing executions back out into the open—not closed-circuit TV but TV—is a leap most often advocated by those who want to do away with them. They believe that capital punishment would lose the support of a civilized society if people actually saw the state commit the act for which it seeks retribution. Perhaps we should have our executions broadcast as widely as the Super Bowl.

Closure for victims is one of the few arguments left to proponents of the death penalty. Studies show that it is not a deterrent, that it is disproportionately imposed on the poor and sometimes mistakenly so. Alongside mandatory life without parole, it may not even be the ultimate punishment. Is death worse than a life spent shackled in a cell? The only sure thing about capital punishment is that it is cost effective.

So we await tales from those who return from the viewing room, where most of us, gratefully, will never go. I wouldn’t want to be the reporter having to put a microphone in the face of one of the mothers coming out of that bleak, nameless room in Oklahoma City. But somewhere along the way I’d like to know: Did you find a compensating grace in McVeigh’s death, some sliver of serenity that eluded you before? Are you wiser, are you lighter, is there one less drop of grief in your ocean of sorrow? Perhaps some crimes are too horrendous to be forgiven. Only retribution will do, and justly so. You can help us. We need to know.