Weighing the Crime and the Punishment

Weighing the Crime and the Punishment

Will the execution of Timothy McVeigh achieve justice? Faculty experts say 'No'

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Barring any late legal developments, convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh will die next Wednesday, and the book on one of the most gruesome crimes in American history will be closed.

Or will it? Several Boston College experts say the impending McVeigh execution raises some pointed, and troubling, issues about social morality and the American legal system. These questions, they say, involve the nature of Christian ethics, particularly justice and redemption - questions of great importance to an institution rooted in the Catholic church, a staunch opponent of capital punishment.

Academic Development Center Director Suzanne Barrett: "McVeigh challenges the belief that we must show compassion to all people."

The case of McVeigh - whose character appears as wholly unsympathetic as his deed - is, according to the BC faculty members, as much a test of faith as of American social and political philosophy.

"McVeigh challenges the belief that we must show compassion to all people," said Academic Development Center Director Suzanne Barrett, a College of Advancing Studies faculty member. "There is the idea that we evaluate a society based on how it treats the old and infirm. But how do you treat someone like a Tim McVeigh, who appears so remorseless and cruel, yet, although many people would like to think otherwise, is still a human being?"

Theology Department Chairman Assoc. Prof. Stephen Pope, a frequent writer on the subject of justice and forgiveness, says viewing the case through the lens of Christian ethics offers a rationale for sparing McVeigh from execution.

Catholics, he said, can look to Jesus and His appeal for non-violence and, more importantly, His urging that love of one's neighbor include love of one's enemy.

"The difficulty here is that we often confuse 'love' with approval or affection," explained Pope. "But in Christian ethics, 'love' means willing your enemies 'the good,' which can mean 'what is good for them.' The 'good' for McVeigh, therefore, would mean that he truly realize and appreciate the awful consequences of his crime."

Flatley Professor of Catholic Theology David Hollenbach, SJ, says earlier Catholic theologians, notably Thomas Aquinas, offered a context for the viability of the death penalty as a way of protecting society against heinous crimes. But the Catholic Church has refuted that reasoning, he says, citing statements by Pope John Paul II and American bishops.

Assoc. Prof. Stephen Pope (Theology): "If we want to affirm life, if we want to show that we as a society support the value that someone like McVeigh despises, how is this accomplished by allowing the state to end his life?"

"The more recent church documents essentially say that social conditions are different, that there are other, better ways of protecting society, and so Aquinas' reasons no longer apply," said Fr. Hollenbach.

In a broader public context, Pope says, Christian ethics speak to "respect for human life," and here, too, argue against putting McVeigh to death.

"Using the death penalty, even in this case, sends a mixed message about how we value life," said Pope. "Do we kill someone to show people that you shouldn't kill someone? If we want to affirm life, if we want to show that we as a society support the value that someone like McVeigh despises, how is this accomplished by allowing the state to end his life?

"Ironically, the government and McVeigh seem to believe the same thing: that one can decide to eliminate a life based on your ideas as to who deserves to die."

At first glance, Prof. Phyllis Goldfarb (Law) says, McVeigh seems the best argument for applying the death penalty because the case lacks so many controversial elements commonly cited by opponents. Discrimination based on color or ethnicity is not a factor since McVeigh is not a member of a minority group, she says, and he was not a victim of poor legal representation. There is no overt evidence of a troubled upbringing that might be an extenuating circumstance, nor has he been diagnosed as mentally ill or retarded.

Furthermore, she said, McVeigh has not contested the death sentence, and has even suggested it be publicly televised.

But Goldfarb echoes Pope's point: "From what we've learned about his anti-government motivation for the bombing, it's scary how much his thought process is replicated in the death penalty. We are avenging deaths in Oklahoma City that were revenge for the deaths of the Branch Davidians in Waco. The parallelism in these justifications are uncomfortably similar."

All the philosophical and legal analysis, the faculty experts say, cannot obscure the powerful emotional content of the McVeigh case. Much of their own perspectives on death penalty-related issues, they point out, have been shaped by personal experience, not just by scholarship.

As a law student, Goldfarb assisted with the case of a young man on Georgia's death row, Christopher Burger. During the next 13 years, as the case went through appeal after appeal, Goldfarb corresponded, spoke and occasionally visited with Burger, forging a complex friendship she would recount in a 1994 Clinical Law Review article.

"I had to face the basic contradiction between Chris' basic humanity and his condemnation by Georgia's system of criminal justice," she wrote, "while trying to understand how such a contradiction had arisen."

The relationship ended one December night in 1993 with Burger singing "Happy Birthday" to Goldfarb in his cell. Her birthday was two days away, but Burger was out of time as well as legal options: Hours later, he died in the electric chair.

Acknowledging innumerable differences between Burger and McVeigh, Goldfarb, who has represented other death row inmates, said, "You find that some who have committed such acts really are capable of change and redemption. McVeigh doesn't appear to comprehend the magnitude of these events, but it may be that in the future he could come to grips with his actions."

Barrett has become involved with Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, which advocates for alternatives to the death penalty and for programs that address victims' needs. The group will co-sponsor a conference, "Healing the Wounds of Murder," with BC on campus June 7-10.

Although she has never lost a family member to murder, Barrett says she has been moved and inspired by the example of group members like Bud Welch, whose daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. Welch, she notes, has reached out to McVeigh's family and sought to offer them solace.

"What should our attention as a society be focused on?" said Barrett. "The killing of yet another person, or on a Bud Welch, who is trying to build something meaningful from such a devastating loss?"

Fr. Hollenbach recalled his horror in viewing the human devastation from the Rwandan massacres during a 1996 visit. "Seeing still unburied bodies, I had a strong emotional feeling that those responsible should pay the ultimate penalty," said Fr. Hollenbach. "I felt that maybe there could be an instance where the death penalty should be imposed."

After reflection, and in particular after hearing some Rwandans speak during the United Nations tribunal on the massacres, Fr. Hollenbach changed his view.

"One person said, that in the wake of such a terrible crime, 'We can only let God handle it,'" he said. "That is how I've seen the McVeigh case: Is taking his life really going to balance the scales?"

The discussion over whether McVeigh's execution should be televised recalls for Prof. Alan Rogers (History) an era when death sentences were carried out publicly. In the late 17th century, he says, there was a pedagogical quality to executions: After the crowd had gathered, a clergyman gave an admonishing sermon and the condemned man offered a cautionary account of his life.

"The theme of the whole event was, 'Crime is a slippery slope and there's no such thing as a small sin,'" said Rogers, who has written on the history of capital punishment. "As long as the community was tightly knit and strongly religious, this probably had a deterrent impact, and also reinforced beliefs in a Christian world."

But as communities grew and religion became less central to residents' lives - and the condemned were less willing to accept their fate as retribution for their sins - a backlash against public executions began, Rogers said, and by the mid-19th century Massachusetts and many other states had outlawed them.

"The argument was that public hangings were not a deterrent, and furthermore, that they brutalized the people watching them," he said. "This ran contrary to what an enlightened republic was supposed to be all about."

Those concerns are still valid today, says Goldfarb.

"Because the McVeigh case is such a spectacle, it's easy to lose sight of the major issues that lie at the root of these events," she said. "If there is anything to be gained from this, I would hope for a greater reflection on all our parts on the sources and uses of violence in our country, and how this cycle can be broken."


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