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Jewish World Review April 25, 2001 / 3 Iyar 5761

Don Feder

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McVeigh puts capital punishment in focus -- THE execution of Timothy McVeigh, three weeks from today, puts the capital punishment debate into sharp focus.

That's why opponents of the death penalty are uneasy talking about the Oklahoma City bomber. For the vast majority of us -- those who aren't ideologically rigid -- it's hard to feel anything but loathing for the terrorist who's admitted to killing 168 people in cold blood.

McVeigh's total lack of remorse is chilling. His characterization of the 19 children he murdered ("collateral damage") is reminiscent of the way the Nazis dehumanized their victims. McVeigh challenges the dogma of death-penalty opponents as no other execution since those of the Nuremberg defendants. They respond by changing the subject.

On Fox News, I recently fenced with Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch. As soon as the mass murderer's name was mentioned, Fellner launched into an oration on the likelihood that we are executing the innocent -- because some death-row inmates have been released, supposedly proving their saintliness.

Fellner's pleading is a ploy, though slightly less inept than that of the show's host, who stated: If we execute McVeigh, we'll make him a martyr. Right -- like they're are millions of militia types out there who'll be lighting candles before McVeigh shrines.

When pressed, death-penalty opponents usually admit they oppose capital punishment on principle -- as Fellner did reluctantly. But since there's so little public support for that position, they immediately switch to another approach with more appeal.

Either 55 or 86 death-row inmates (depending on whom you talk to) have been released, abolitionists argue. They neglect to mention that most have been freed on legal technicalities or granted executive clemency.

Since 1977, the first execution after the Supreme Court authorized the death sentence, slightly more than 700 people have been executed in this country. Among the experts, there is no consensus that any of them were innocent.

On average, it takes over 10 years to execute a convicted murderer, more than enough time to weigh every shred of evidence, examine DNA, appeal on perceived errors at trial and so on. Though, for prohibitionists, a century would hardly be time enough.

However, as I was saying, the argument is a diversion. If you could prove with absolute certainty that an individual is guilty, abolitionists would still oppose his execution. They believe it's inhumane to execute cop-killers, child-killers, the sadists who torture their victims for hours and mass murderers like McVeigh.

How does the state teach respect for life by taking a life? they ask. The murderer shares our common humanity. Surely even he can be rehabilitated. When the state kills, it does irreparable damage to our institutions, they plead.

Dead wrong.

Executing a murderer is the only way to adequately express our horror at the taking of an innocent life. Nothing else suffices. To equate the lives of killers with those of victims is the worst kind of moral equivalency. If capital punishment is state murder, then imprisonment is state kidnapping and restitution is state theft.

A murderer sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole can still laugh, learn and love, listen to music and read, form friendships, and do the thousand and one things (mundane and sublime) forever foreclosed to his victims.

A life sentence tells victims, and their loved ones: We don't care enough about you. Because we're too squeamish to take the life of a monster, we are implicitly stating that your life (or that of your loved ones) means less than your murderer's.

Again, McVeigh is instructive. Families and survivors of the Oklahoma bombing don't just demand his death; many want to watch. More than 250 of them will view the killer's execution on May 16.

They need to know that the man with blood on his hands will draw breath no more. They are driven by an innate urge for justice.

Like all punishment, that's what the death sentence ultimately is about -- the quest for justice. In the case of McVeigh, clearly nothing else is appropriate. But ethics isn't a numbers game. If a man who murders 168 deserves to die, why not the killer of 25, or 12, or one?

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest books are Who is afraid of the Religious Right? ($15.95) and A Jewish conservative looks at pagan America ($9.95). To receive an autographed copy, send a check or money order to: Don Feder, The Boston Herald, 1 Herald Sq., Boston, Mass. 02106. Doing so will help fund JWR, if so noted. He is also available as a guest speaker. To comment on this column please click here.


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© 2001, Creators Syndicate