The Death Penalty and McVeigh
Jude Wanniski
June 5, 1997


Memo To: Website browsers, fans, clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Death Penalty/McVeigh

In our Memo on the Margin yesterday, I mentioned that while I supported capital punishment, I believed life without parole was appropriate in the case of Timothy McVeigh. I didn’t go into a detailed rationale, and as a result I got an e-mail from my brother Terry, who said he was troubled by my comment: “If he had raped a woman in the building before he blew it up?  If he had taken an insurance policy on someone in the bldg ??  Do you believe his political motives excuse it as a capital case???” Well, more or less. The punishment should fit the crime, and in this case I believe justice is served by having McVeigh spend the rest of his life in prison. He is not “justified” in having caused the deaths of 168 human beings, many of them children. If he were, we would have to let him go free. If we knew his intent was to cause the deaths of innocents, I would favor the death penalty. His intent, though, was far more abstract, and was in fact political. There is a fine line, here, having to do with the means available to McVeigh. Remember we are not deciding on death or no death, but on immediate death or death after a lifetime in prison. Could his intent have been accomplished without the collateral shedding of blood? When our government incinerated Waco, the deaths of the women and children therein were considered collateral to the central intent. After the fact, we regret the bloodshed. When our government bombed Tripoli in an attempt to kill Khadafy, and instead only killed innocent bystanders, we feel justified, given the nature of our national grievances against Khadafy, even after we find that he was innocent of the specific terrorist act that led to the bombing. These are not easy questions to answer and never have been. Whatever the Denver jury decides will be fine with me, because I know there are a dozen lives and perspectives weighing all the social and moral implications.

To get a broader perspective, I asked Peter Signorelli, my colleague at Polyconomics, and a fellow who thinks about these things from his conservative, Catholic perspective, to examine the issue and share his thoughts with you on the website. There is less room for capital punishment in his thinking than in mine, but the subtleties are worth considering and pondering. Here is what he wrote:

Timothy McVeigh, found guilty by a jury of his peers for killing 168 innocent men, women, and children in the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, ought not to be put to death for his hideous crime.

Moral theology holds that no evil act is justified by a good intention. No act that is wrong in itself can become good, however lofty the end proposed, however spontaneously or sincerely performed. It is never permitted to do evil so that good may come of it (Romans 3:8). All cultures, even the most primitive, have always viewed as a hideous offense the taking of innocent human life. There is imprinted in the human heart a knowledge that the murder of a human being is a grievous offense. This is why on one level many primitive peoples’s word for themselves translates into something akin to “human being,” so that the taking of the lives of others outside that tribe or clan or people may occur without violating the universal notion of the sacredness of human life. By this criterion, there is no justification whatsoever for Timothy McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City. However, by the same moral criterion an argument can be made that he be spared the death penalty for his crime.

“Thou shalt not kill” is presented by Sacred Scripture as a divine commandment. There are times when this commandment seems to pose paradoxical situations, as for example with the question of self defense. One has a right to protect one’s own life, but also the duty not to harm another’s life. Moral theology, however, instructs that legitimate defense is not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life, for the common good of the family or for the common good of the state. As the exercise of that obligation may sometimes result in the taking of human life, “the fatal outcome,” as Thomas Acquinas presented the argument on behalf of “just war” and other acts of self-defense, “is attributable to the aggressor whose action brought it about.”

Of course, if bloodless means are sufficient to defend lives against aggressors, to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means. Why? Because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. “Thou shalt not kill” commands us to respect every human life, even that of unjust aggressors, of sexually depraved child murderers, of remorseless mass murderers.

But does not the blood of those murdered cry out from the ground for justice? Yes, as it ever has since Cain slew Abel. And the crime cannot be left unpunished. But let us look at how God responded when death first entered this world. “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For He has created all things that they might exist” (Wisdom 1:13-14). But death entered in a violent way, with the killing of Abel by his brother Cain. And God intervened to avenge the murdered Abel, telling Cain “The voice of your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:8). Let us look, however, at His punishment of Cain, because even here we see that not even a murderer loses his personal dignity. Cain is cursed by God and by the earth. And Cain pleads “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold You have driven me this day away from the ground; and from Your face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.” God is merciful, though, even when He punishes, and he tells Cain “Not so! If anyone slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken upon him sevenfold.” God preferred the correction rather than the death of a sinner. God did not punish murder by taking the life of the murderer.

Executing Timothy McVeigh to avenge those whose deaths he brought about borders on committing an evil for a good intention; vengeance ought never be a criterion by which the taking of human life is permitted. Passions may feed the desire to impose the supreme punishment on him, the penalty of death, but what is the right intention here? For the punishment of Timothy McVeigh, the question has to be asked “what best redresses the disorder caused by his offense.” Is his execution absolutely necessary to defend society? Incarceration for life removes him as a threat to society. Taking his life is not necessary to accomplish that.