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Jewish World Review May 15, 2001 / 22 Iyar, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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An execution, not a lynching -- LIKE many other people, Bud Welch lost a member of his family -- his daughter Julie -- when Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City. Unlike most of the others, Welch opposes the death penalty, even for McVeigh, and is willing to say so publicly. Predictably, that has brought him a great deal of media attention. He has been quoted in countless newspaper and magazine stories and has appeared on television broadcasts nationwide.

In his view, executions are nothing but organized savagery:

"The execution of Timothy McVeigh will not bring back Julie or her colleagues," Welch says, "nor will it end the grieving for any of the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. Revenge and hate are the reasons 168 people died that day in 1995. I oppose the death penalty absolutely, in all cases, because in all cases it is an act of revenge and hatred.

But Welch is wrong. Wrong to describe capital punishment as nothing but "revenge and hatred" and wrong to imply that revenge and hatred -- as opposed to fairness and justice -- are what drive those who disagree with him. Welch deserves our sympathy for his daughter's death, but he is not entitled to impugn the motives of everyone who supports the death penalty.

Those who favor McVeigh's execution, after all, include every member of the jury that decided the bomber should die. Were they, too, in the grip of revenge and hatred?

Those jurors, recall, delivered their verdict after 11 hours of deliberation. Before that, they had spent more than a month at the trial, absorbing the evidence for and against McVeigh's guilt. They had heard the defense make the strongest possible case for leniency but were not allowed to hear prosecution testimony that the judge considered inflammatory. They had become jurors in the first place only after a vetting process in which they were scrutinized by the lawyers for signs of bias. The trial itself had been moved to Denver, away from the Oklahoma press that, in the judge's words, had "demonized" McVeigh.

Those precautions, plus innumerable others, make up due process of law, the firewall that under our system of justice must be interposed between every defendant and the passion and anger of unbridled vengeance. "The criminal justice system goes to great lengths to take revenge and hatred out of the legal process," says Dudley Sharp of Justice For All, a victims advocacy group.

Which is not to say that Americans have never carried out executions that really were acts of revenge and hatred. Over the years, thousands of men, women, and even children have been publicly killed without due process of law, often in the presence of hundreds or even thousands of local citizens, because they were accused of some crime or offense. The word for such executions is lynchings, and it is hard to imagine anything less like a lynching than the painless, peaceful death awaiting McVeigh in Terre Haut.

A grim and heartbreaking volume published last year -- Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America -- shows the horror that can ensue when self-respecting citizens dispense with due process and take retribution into their own hands. Image after hellish image attests to the barbarism of "justice" without law: The pictures in the book -- many of which, incredibly, were originally printed up as postcards and sold door-to-door -- show lynching victims hanged, burned alive, dismembered, riddled with bullets, castrated. They were usually black and usually male -- though not always -- and their killers often took pains to make their deaths as sadistic as possible.

"When the two Negroes were captured," reported the Vicksburg Evening Post in its story on the 1904 lynching of Luther Holbert and his wife in Doddsville, Miss., "they were tied to trees and ... forced to suffer the most fiendish tortures. The blacks were forced to hold out their hands while one finger at a time was chopped off. The fingers were distributed as souvenirs.... Holbert was beaten severely, his skull was fractured, and one of his eyes, knocked out with a stick, hung by a shred from the socket.... The most excruciating form of punishment consisted in the use of a large corkscrew [that] was bored into the flesh of the man and woman ... and then pulled out."

In the late 19th and early 20th century, two or three black Southerners were lynched every week. Frequently the killings were well-attended entertainments. What is most chilling in these photos isn't the dangling and mutilated corpses of the victims but the cheerful, complacent faces of the onlookers.

"Neither crazed fiends nor the dregs of white society, the bulk of the lynchers tended to be ordinary and respectable people," writes historian Leon Litwak in his introduction to Without Sanctuary. After one lynching near Charleston, the local newspaper praised the "prominent citizens" involved for having carried it out in the "most approved and up-to-date fashion."

Between 1882 and 1948, more than 4,700 black Americans were lynched. Most were innocent of any crime. All were denied what McVeigh was granted so amply: fair treatment, due process, an impartial judge and jury, an able defense, the right to appeal. Their executions were acts of revenge and hate. His execution will be an act of justice.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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