I only am escaped alone to tell thee:

We deny McVeigh his humanity at our own peril

Tomorrow morning, Monday June 11th, 2001, SSG Timothy James McVeigh will be escorted from his holding cell into the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana. He'll be executed by lethal injection, while several hundred people look on, the first federal execution in 38 years. When his heart stops, the American people will have completed the final act in their own self-delusion and bamboozlement. McVeigh, one of the greatest performance artists of our age, will have simultaneously transcended humanity, secured his place in history, and pulled the wool over our eyes one last time.

There are a number of things at work here - the real question of justice that McVeigh shields with his silence. When we put Tim to death, we will irrevocably seal the real record of the bombing. The administration of real justice in this case, and more importantly, the protection of the public from the rest of McVeigh's cabal, will become an impossibility. They will have successfully vanished back into the tunnel network of the American anti-government underground. The larger issue, however, is a harder to tackle and less concrete. We want to silence Tim as a denial of his humanity. Our desire to disown him is so great, our need to feel that someone we know could never walk that same totalizing path, that we are willing to kill him to shut him up. We want him stopped, stuffed, and mounted as a kind of wundermonster, a lycanthrope that was once a man, but was transformed by forces beyond our understanding. We want to make him Other, a supernatural being that we were able to quell with our collective outrage. When we kill him, we say, "He isn't one of us - we aren't capable of things like this."

It is that very act of denial that is the danger here. Because the path that he walked from neighborhood jokester to super-terrorist is available for review, a bold and resonant record of public fact, circumstantial and anecdotal evidence. He was not foisted fully-formed upon the American people, like some kind of malevolently forged Athena. Nor is his transformation some dark, inscrutable mystery, the favorite position of the popular press. Instead, McVeigh sought to change himself into an agent of history, and no one stopped him, no one interceded. So, step-by-step, bad decision by bad decision, he was able to boresight on his "mission" and strengthen the power of his disassociation. But we don't want to look at the record. We don't want to see all the different places that human contact, compassion, even an intelligent conversation could have stopped the entire thing. If he had only found an intellectual peer in the Army, or found work as a writer when he got out (he was always a frustrated author), or just gotten laid - even once. All that anger and ambition could have found a ground, and taken a different instantiation than a five-thousand pound truck bomb.

McVeigh has something to tell us, and we ignore it at our own peril. The intelligent and motivated, the people with a fire in their belly, must be taken into the fold, if only to watch over. They must be given a mission, something they can use to infuse their life with meaning. If they can't sign on to an approved mission, then they create their own, and that's where the trouble starts. The story of self-transformation is a powerful one, particularly in America. We like to think that if we apply ourselves, come up with a big idea and push it, we can change ourselves, become something larger, something significant, something with impact. It's the Batman story, the Bill Gates story, the VH-1 "Behind the Music" story. Tim wanted to transform himself, to set himself apart. The military attracts people that want to stand apart, yet belong. It's when they stop wanting to belong that the trouble starts.

The idea of ordinary people contemplating such a fundamental a break from society is terrifying. So we deny it. Our own fear strips McVeigh of his humanity, and he becomes an Act of God. He ceases to be a man, and transcends into Force Majeure, an instrument of contingency and history. And we remain as children, afraid to look into our own darkness for fear of finding a commonality there. We want nothing in common with Tim, so we lessen and endanger ourselves, while irradiating McVeigh with the dark power and elevated profile he so craved.

And such power we've given him, the platform from which to address the world. He has commanded the attention of the most powerful nation on earth for months now. Locked away with no possibility of parole, he would have slowly deflated. The dull ember of a spent star, maybe he could have found remorse. He would have become human again, ordinary. At least he could have been studied. Instead, he's handed a perfect ending to the arc of his life. Part of the cable generation and an inveterate reader, McVeigh knows a good ending when he sees one. The frustrated writer has worked out his final lines and stands ready to perform.

We're all wondering about the tape, the death transmission. We all want to see the minotaur bled and killed, the only ending we can accept in our adolescent fear. Even if no tape is poached or smuggled out, there will be the tape of his last moments in my mind's eye. On my tape, as the potassium chloride silently stops his heart, Tim has the faintest of smiles on his lips. He's smiling because, ultimately, he got away with it. He handed us the ultimate screw job, and with the theatrics dispensed with we are left wondering.

Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape...
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn'd,
(The Earth) Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws
To cast thee up again. What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisit'st thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous, and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Hamlet. Act i. Sc. 4

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