Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

A Justice's Words In the Mouth Of a Terrorist

After Timothy McVeigh was sentenced to death for the Oklahoma City bombing, he limited himself to quoting in court from a 1928 opinion of Justice Louis Brandeis.

It spoke of government "as the potent, the omnipresent teacher, which teaches the people by its example."

About these ads

Considering the racist culture he came from, it was perhaps ironic that McVeigh should seek validation for his massive crime from the first Jewish justice of the Supreme Court.

Justice Brandeis was writing a dissent against a 5-to-4 decision upholding the use of illegally obtained wire tap evidence by prohibition agents against a group of bootleggers. Brandeis went on to say, "If the government becomes a law breaker, it breeds contempt for the law. It invites every man to become a law unto himself. It invites anarchy."

In quoting Brandeis, McVeigh seemed to be suggesting that the FBI raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, had de-legitimized the government and legitimized his act on the second anniversary of Waco.

When asked about that, the prosecutor in the Oklahoma City case, Joseph Hartzler, said, "Do me a favor, don't interpret his words as those from a statesman."

Fair enough. The words of a Tim McVeigh are more deserving of psychological than constitutional analysis. Yet it's worthwhile trying to understand the twisted logic that gives the violence-prone a patina of justification.

John Wilkes Booth, who shot President Lincoln, leaped on stage to make his own McVeigh-like statement: "Sic semper tyrannis." Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who killed President McKinley, was presumably striking a blow against government as the oppressor.

McVeigh, when captured, wore a T-shirt inscribed with a line from Jefferson: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

About these ads

Our violence-prone society has produced - aside from ordinary criminals, dope-assisted murder, and random killers - a breed of Holy-war fanatics, individuals and militia units seeking license for their conspiracies from the founding fathers and the Constitution.

That their fevered thinking about bringing down government should intersect with pronouncement of respected jurists on liberty is a travesty. Perhaps McVeigh's final act of violence was to the memory of Justice Brandeis, the upholder of individual rights, determined and protected by law.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.