An Eye for an Eye?

By Will Baker

As I pen these lines, Timothy McVeigh, the fellow convicted of carrying out the Oklahoma City bombing, is scheduled for execution by lethal injection next month. The plan was for him to go to his death next week. But as a result of the withholding of evidence by the federal prosecution, the carrying out of his sentence has been pushed back thirty days to allow his defense team time to review the new information.

This spectacle has provided me with an opportunity to think about how my views regarding the death penalty have evolved over time. Although I can imagine circumstances where the taking of a human life might be justified, such as killing a person in self-defense, or during a military operation, I am not in favor of the death penalty. It seems to me that publicly sanctioned execution is simply wrong and barbaric. As a side-note, I believe that the rest of the developed world would agree with me-the United States is the only remaining "developed" country in the world that still routinely utilizes capital punishment.

When I was younger, I was in favor of the death penalty. After all, I reasoned why should the perpetrator of a heinous crime be allowed to live? And why should society have to be burdened with paying for a lifetime of incarceration for such individuals. Of course there is sometimes a rehabilitative component to incarceration, but in the case of those found guilty of the most terrible acts, surely society must be protected I reasoned. And then there is retribution. In this country, we often say that a criminal should pay a debt to society, and I had no problem with that debt being paid with the person’s life.

But then I became aware of the fact, that in a certain number of cases, innocent folks have been convicted and sentenced to death. My awareness of these unfortunate instances developed before the advent of DNA testing. In fact, this was many years before this technology was widely accepted as having a criminal justice application. And the instances of the wrongly accused being put to death were few and far between. But I was shocked to learn that it had happened. And in recent years, as a result of the application of this DNA technology, a startling number of convictions have been overturned. In fact, the state of Illinois has imposed a moratorium on executions; for fear that the innocent might be put to death.

So a part of my argument has to do with fairness. And the fact that I can not imagine a way for us to execute people without being totally certain that sprinkled among the guilty, there are not innocent people which, are being put to their deaths. I am also concerned with the karma of our country. What profit is there, I ask, in retribution? What purpose does it serve? It is my understanding that the relatives of the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing will be allowed to witness the execution via closed circuit television. And many of them have indicated that witnessing this spectacle might provide them with a sense of closure. But I don’t "buy" this. I see this as a twenty-first century application of the code of Hammurabi (read: an eye for an eye). But what place does that code of conduct from another age have in our time. After all, this is the same code, which proscribed the execution of adulterers. No, I would like to think that the philosophy of our body politic has evolved to a somewhat more enlightened state.

And then there is our current President, who during his tenure as the Governor of Texas carried out the execution of criminals, with more frequency, than that of any other governor in the history of the state. And this is the same man that was indignant over the United Nations recent action of removing our country from that body’s Human Rights Commission. As much as I love my country, given the fact that we are the only nation in the developed world to execute people, part of me wonders whether we deserve a place at that table. We rail against the human rights violations that we see occurring in many countries. But don’t we seem just the tiniest bit hypocritical -given the fact that, over the years, surely we must have convicted and sent many innocent people to their deaths. Yes it seems to me that the public sanctioned killing of an innocent person, is perhaps the worst type of human rights violation.

But back to our country’s karma: It seems to me that based on the violent entertainment which, we occupy ourselves with (in film, sport and reality-based programming), we are a society that is experiencing a sort of "blood lust." And for the life of me I can not fathom how this can be a good thing. I also find it highly ironic that many of the folks that support the death penalty also speak out vocally against this violence that, I spoke to above. I do believe that as a people, our fates are very much linked to one another. And this blood lust, and the negative consequences of it, greatly troubles me. We are appalled by the violence of the Oklahoma City Bombing, yet we remedy the actions by engaging in violence. And lest you think that pumping poison into someone’s veins is a non-violent act, I ask you to think again.

In closing, I would like to leave you with this hypothetical question. Assume that you are the mother or father of Timothy McVeigh. And also assume that you had another child, who was working in the federal building at Oklahoma City at the time of the blast and was killed. If it were up to you, would you execute Timothy?

What is the point you ask? Well, gentle reader, it seems to me that, we are all sisters and brothers under the sun, therefore we are related to each other in a very real sense. In fact, science and mathematics show us that, at one moment in time, all of the matter contained in our universe was collectively present in one location, including all of the matter in our bodies. We truly are stardust, all of us. Therefore, in a sense, when we kill someone like Timothy, might we also be killing ourselves, and our sisters and brothers, and all of our relatives that have passed away, and those yet to be born? And if so, dear reader, I ask again: what profit is there in that?





 (Essay Collection)