Like Madame LaFarge doing her knitting while taking in guillotine executions in Charles Dickens's "Tale of Two Cities," many Americans may be tempted to view the scheduled May 16 execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as a morbid but necessary spectacle.
The atmosphere in Terre Haute, Ind., where the federal death chamber is located, is already circuslike. Execution T-shirts and "souvenirs" abound. More than 1,600 foreign and domestic journalists, and who knows how many activists and curiosity-seekers, are expected to descend on the city before next Wednesday.
Actual viewing of the death by lethal injection will be limited to the executioners, along with select witnesses, while family members of the 168 people killed in the 1995 bombing can watch via closed-circuit TV.
The spectacle aspect of this execution is a throwback to an unpleasant past of public hangings. It's a reminder of the coarsening effect on public values of state-sanctioned killings, which usually take place far out of public view.
The wide interest - almost enthusiasm - in this execution is due to the magnitude and malevolence of Mr. McVeigh's crime, his lack of contrition, and his hatred of federal power. With so many Americans supporting this final resolution, those who oppose the death penalty may feel defensive. They needn't.
Since 1976, when the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty as constitutional (under strict standards), 707 individuals have been put to death by states. McVeigh's will be the first federal execution since 1963.
But some states are now considering a temporary halt to executions after many death-row inmates were found to be innocent or inadequately defended. One state, Illinois, has a death-penalty moratorium.
Such doubts are a valid starting point for rethinking capital punishment. But they're just a start. Society has more at stake in this issue than the risk of wrongful executions.
A civilization's core reason for existence lies in its ability to uphold the sanctity of life and perpetuate it. How much is that purpose diminished when the state executes criminals for reasons of justice? It's worth looking at those reasons in this case:
Avenging the wrong done to victims and the harm done to their families. Ending the life of someone who takes life so coldly is seen as the ultimate act of retribution. Some family members of the Oklahoma City bombing victims understandably seek closure to their hatred of McVeigh by having him die. Some doubt the execution will settle anything for them.
But one father whose daughter died in the blast, Bud Welch, has become a fervent campaigner against the death penalty. He has said he realized his initial desire to see the bomber dead sprang from the same sources as the bombing itself - hatred and vengeance. He decided he didn't want to perpetuate those motives, which rely on the archaic eye-for-an-eye sense of justice.
Trying to find finality in the death of another human being is to treat criminals the same way they treat their victims: as unworthy objects. Where's the healing in that?
A deterrent to crime. The death penalty may give some would-be murderers second thoughts. Most experts doubt it does; death-penalty states have higher murder rates. If anything, the threat may make a murderer desperate to kill if trapped. And it's unlikely to keep fanatics like McVeigh from terrorist acts. He saw himself as an avenger against government actions like the federal attack on the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Now he seems to welcome being a martyr in hopes his cause will rise again and inspire future martyrs. So much for deterrence.
A penalty befitting the crime. Meting out a punishment that somehow matches the severity of the crime is the basis for most sentencing of criminals. For McVeigh, whose act was the most heinous in US history in terms of loss of life, just taking his life will hardly measure up. For most murderers, a life behind bars would be a daunting punishment. That's almost certainly the case for McVeigh.
He should remain in a cell for life, compelled to discover a conscience, and perhaps compelled to recognize that he, too, can stand for the sanctity of life within the very society he so perversely thought he was correcting by killing federal workers and others. His execution means that both he and the government will have one thing in common: They both kill to prevent a society from killing its own.
Finally, beyond these reasons for capital punishment in the name of justice lies a simple dictum that has stood the test of nearly 3,000 years.
It's a four-word commandment, brought down from Horeb by Moses, that continues to challenge mankind:
"Thou shalt not kill."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor