Exploiting A Tragedy

Death Penalty Supporters Use The Mcveigh Case


By: Marlene Martin

"If not McVeigh, who? If not now, when?" read the cover headline of Newsweek magazine after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that took the lives of 168 people.

Indeed, Pres. George W. Bush will try to convince us that we need the death penalty to properly deal with people like Timothy McVeigh -- the man behind the bombing. McVeigh has rejected his appeals and could be executed on May 16 if Bush gives the order -- the first execution carried out by the federal government in 37 years. Bush and company say that the families who lost loved ones in the explosion have a right to closure -- and that justice will be served with McVeigh’s execution. Already, Bush has made a visit to the new memorial exhibit in Oklahoma City where he said he wanted to show support for the families.

But none of us should be swayed by Bush’s hollow sense of caring. Let’s not forget that this is the same man who oversaw the execution of 152 people while he was governor of Texas. This is the same man who as governor vetoed a bill that would have created a public defenders’ system -- something that would have helped poor defendants get legal help. This is the same man who fought hard against legislation that would have prevented the execution of the mentally retarded. And he refused to consider proposals to bar the execution of people who were juveniles at the time of the crime.

Bush has a project regarding capital punishment, and that project is to clean up the image of the death penalty. But it won’t be easy. The death penalty is under harsh scrutiny -- exposed as a system that is riddled with error, racist in its application and almost exclusively used against the poorest in society. Growing numbers of people have been organizing to show their opposition to the death penalty, and it’s paying off. Five states are seriously considering moratorium legislation, and in a vote taken in early March, legislation to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts was defeated by a wide margin.

Bush and other politicians want to turn back our momentum, and they want to use the McVeigh case to do it. They are spotlighting his horrific act of mass murder because this helps them cover up what the death penalty is really about. For every Timothy McVeigh on death row, there are many other prisoners who are there mainly because they were too poor to afford a decent lawyer or because they were victims of racist police and prosecutors. Executing McVeigh is designed to shore up that system -- to make the death penalty seem legitimate because it’s used against someone like him, when in most cases, it’s used against the most vulnerable and oppressed people in the U.S.

The Oklahoma City bombing was a horrible tragedy. But executing Timothy McVeigh won’t change that, nor will it prevent more acts of mass murder.

And saying so doesn’t make us defenders of Timothy McVeigh. Personally, I find his ideas disgusting and offensive. But he was shaped by the violence of the society around him. McVeigh was trained to be a mass murderer during the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. He drove one of the bulldozer vehicles that buried surrendering Iraqi soldiers alive during the ground war. Then, the U.S. government considered him a hero.

The hypocrisy couldn’t be clearer. There is some violence that the U.S. government condones, there is other violence it condemns.

As Bud Welch -- whose 23-year-old daughter was killed in the bombing -- said in an interview with the New Abolitionist: "The truth is we only kill the easy ones. We don’t have the millionaires on death row. DuPont, the millionaire who killed the Olympic wrestler, didn’t get the death penalty. If that was a poor person, you’d better believe the prosecutors would have been seeking the death penalty.

"You’re just an easy pick if they’re poor. Politicians want to get reelected, and they want to prove that they’re tough on crime. They want to prove that they’re the baddest asses in the jungle. And then we vote for the baddest asses because we’re blinded to how things really work. This isn’t working."