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Jewish World Review June 19, 2001 / 29 Sivan, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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It's over: Delusion of grandeur -- EVERY crime begins with a lie, if only to oneself -- as any conversation with cons will confirm. For there is always a good reason for what they did, or at least a good reason why they should now be released. Or even admired. "I needed the money.'' "I had to protect my family.'' "She asked for it.'' Or in the case of Principal Bomber No. 1 at Oklahoma City on April 19th, 1995, "It was the government's fault.''

Only the enormity of his crime distinguished this criminal from that of any small-time hood who wants to do something Big. The delusion of grandeur was the same; only the scale was different. And the political trappings. The crime was great, but the criminal was anything but. So he had to fill the gap with lies, all in vain.

At first he lied just to escape punishment. Once convicted, he decided to wring a kind of celebrity out of his crime, though he was still careful not to confess in open court. The lies never ceased, and they never grew any more convincing. It was as if he hoped to make up in quantity what his grand delusion lacked in quality:

He wasn't afraid to die, he said, and then argued against the death penalty. He boasted about his crime, but wanted off. He was ready to die, but nevertheless appealed at the last minute. Twice.

From first to last, Principal Bomber No. 1 was a fraud. If he conned anyone, it was himself. Or maybe those few so far gone in their paranoid politics that they shared his fantasies. He was living "The Turner Diaries,'' and now he has died in its cheap delusions.

In the end, he was reduced to borrowing other men's clevernesses, regularly dropping them into his Last Statements. On being sentenced, he quoted Brandeis to no clear purpose. On being executed, he copied a popular 19th Century poem (''Invictus'') that had enjoyed a revival in the Depression years. It was the favorite poem of Huey Long, Franklin D. Roosevelt and probably every high school senior at the time.

Like every obscure assassin who sets out to make the history books, he seems to have had no idea of history itself and how unoriginal his thoughts were.

In the end he will not appear in history but only in games of Trivial Pursuit in some better future. Like the answer to the question, "Who shot McKinley?''

He could destroy but not create. His was a familiar frustration. But he acted on it, playing out his fantasy. This was no monster. In Nazi Germany or Communist Russia, he would have fit right in as an SS trooper or NKVD man. Despite all the mumbo jumbo about a Man of Masks, there was no mystery to John Doe No. 1. He was just another hater. Only he played out the whole, mad script.

At one point he wrote a letter to a Buffalo newspaper claiming, "I am sorry these people had to lose their lives.'' At another, he tallied the score: "It's 168 to one.'' Including the babies.

When he was first arrested and was being taken back to Oklahoma City for questioning, the man who wasn't afraid to die asked for a bulletproof vest.

He spoke of his victims as "collateral damage,'' borrowing a euphemism that offends even when it occurs in conventional militaryspeak. Even his lies were borrowed.

Despite the used eloquence and outworn clichis, John Doe No. 1 was no martyr. He wanted to go down in history, he said, as another John Brown. He won't. John Brown explained clearly and simply why he had declared personal war on his country. He did not hide behind appeals or double talk or second-hand oratory. The old abolitionist made no bones about it: He was willing to rend the Union and cover it with blood in order to set men free.

John Brown's terrible secret was that, more than he loved slaves, he loved to kill slaveholders. The old bushwhacker left a trail of blood from the Kansas prairies to Harpers Ferry, where it all finally caught up with him.

John Brown was a murderous fanatic, but let it be said that he never denied it. He did not appeal his death sentence, or strike cute poses, or play word games. He and the colonel who quashed his little rebellion at Harpers Ferry, one Robert E. Lee, understood one another. Fanaticism had met duty.

The only thing heroic about John Brown was his death. His confession was direct, unblinking and completely unlike that of our own era's John Doe No. 1, who evaded the truth even unto death.

John Brown was a mad, avenging prophet -- foretelling what lay ahead. He rose out of his country's great sin, that of human bondage. He did not deny what he had done, or seek to evade its consequences. He had hoped to plunge the country into civil war, and soon enough he did in his own way. He hid nothing, and died in the same terrible faith that led him to kill. He was part of a national tragedy.

Unlike John Brown, Principal Bomber No. 1 posed till the last. He had set out to demonstrate some confused figment of an idea but could not or dared not be clear about it. He wanted to equate the homicidal incompetence of the government at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco with his own deliberate act of mass murder. But he must have realized that to state such an idea plainly would have been to refute it.

John Doe No. 1 was not part of some inevitable national tragedy. He was just a petty killer with delusions of grandeur. He had a technical mind, but his political ideas were stuck at the level of comic-book ideology. His was a case of arrested development -- arrested moral development. Politically, he never got past adolescence. Sometimes it happens to whole nations: Germany in the '30s. Russia in its recurring fits of madness. The principal symptom is always the same: violence.

There are noble ways to defy authority -- ways that do not take innocent life. An abolitionist of another bent, Henry David Thoreau, willingly went to prison for his beliefs and explained why in his essay on civil disobedience: "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison . . . the only house in a slave state in which a free man can abide with honor.''

Thoreau, too, defied the state, but in his own way: "I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion ... .'' Yet he did not hurt or destroy, and his words would inspire Gandhi, who in turn would inspire Martin Luther King Jr., and create a tradition. A tradition that blesses rather than curses, that chooses life, and has become part of American history.

Far from a Thoreau, Principal Bomber No. 1 wasn't even a John Brown. Having committed his awful crime, he lacked the courage to confess it openly in a court of law. Instead, he tried to justify what he had done without taking clear responsibility for it. Monday morning he died as he had killed -- for nothing. The sun broke through the clouds, birds still sang and bees buzzed, women carried babies and boys played baseball. Life went on no longer disturbed by his presence. It was over.

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