A Typical Muderer

This Op-ed ran in the Washington Post on Saturday, May 5, 2001.

Although Timothy McVeigh's crime is one of the most horrible imaginable, the motivation for his crime and his behavior in the courtroom actually are quite typical. As an expert witness in capital cases, I have noticed that many criminals are motivated by the desire to right a wrong, not to perpetrate one. Most criminals think they are restoring an imbalance that the victim has created by his own actions. Such is the case with ordinary crimes of passion, domestic violence, aggravated assault and sometimes even robbery and burglary. In the criminal's view, the victim deserved to be punished.

Criminals tend to see moral issues as cut and dried -- no ambiguity for them. They are overly sensitive to perceived injustices and believe in getting even. Motivated by revenge, a primitive form of justice, they tend to believe in harsh punishment, even capital punishment.

A few days ago I had the occasion to talk with two convicted murders, both of whom expressed powerful support for the death penalty. They believed in "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" even if that left everyone blind and toothless.

In this sense, Timothy McVeigh is typical. He apparently bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City to get back at the federal government for its assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex. in 1992. While many Americans agreed that the government's actions at Waco were questionable, perhaps indefensible, what separates Timothy McVeigh from the rest of us is that he felt that the tragedy at Waco gave him the right to vent his personal anger at the government by killing federal employees and other innocent people. Although most criminals limit their revenge to personal harms or injustices, either real or imagined, Timothy McVeigh is still typical in that he simply did not care about the lives or suffering of his victims. Indeed, the point was to take lives and cause suffering.

McVeigh's behavior in the courtroom also is typical. I have testified for the defense in about 25 death penalty hearings and consulted in dozens more, and I have never seen a defendant show any remorse. Most sit passively, staring into space, appearing not to care whether they live or die. Even when given a chance to make a statement, one that can't be cross-examined, not a single convicted murderer I've observed has availed himself of that opportunity. Not one has gotten up and said simply that he was sorry for what he had done, never mind asked for forgiveness or mercy, even to save his life. Too proud or too stupid, they are not about to fake remorse and beg for their lives. Like Timothy McVeigh, most murderers believe they were morally justified in committing their crimes.

It has been said that Timothy McVeigh is a poster boy for the death penalty. This may be so, but he is also a poster boy against the death penalty. For executing Timothy McVeigh only reinforces the idea that revenge is justified and violence a legitimate way to right a wrong or restore social equilibrium. An execution is what McVeigh has come to expect from us; to him that is the way the world works. By killing McVeigh, however, all we do is feed the thirst for vengeance, weakening rather than strengthening social bonds. In his own eyes, McVeigh is a martyr, a prisoner of war, who struck a blow against government oppression. Using killing to fight killing only gets us into an argument about whose killing is justified and whose is not.

Timothy McVeigh's execution is not only about him. If it were it would be easy, for if anyone deserves to die, it is McVeigh. But McVeigh's execution is also about us, about who we are as a people and what is a sensible social policy toward those who kill. No one has argued that McVeigh should not be punished severely. But is more gained or lost when we choose the death penalty over life imprisonment without parole? How can we respond without encouraging the notion of blood revenge as the only satisfying form of punishment?

With the exaltation of victims' rights during the past two decades, vengeance has become a legitimate goal of punishment and revenge a central focus of the debate on capital punishment. This has forced a false moral choice between the victim and the offender, a kind of whose side are you on, the good guys' or the bad guys'? But to argue against the death penalty in McVeigh's case is not to search for some redeeming value in his life. It is not even to argue over what kind of society we want to live in. It is merely to argue about how we best get there.

Proponents of capital punishment have claimed that McVeigh's execution will help bring closure to the victims' families. I only wish that were true. I suspect that most, even those who witness the execution, will be left as empty and angry as before. Not one of them would have willingly traded the life of their loved one for that of McVeigh. The idea that McVeigh's execution will restore the balance between good and evil is an illusion. Unless McVeigh's crime has somehow turned us into him, this kind of collective revenge is almost always unfulfilling and generally counterproductive. As Peggy Broxterman, who lost a son in the Oklahoma City bombing, has said: "You close on a house. You don't close on a death."

Richard Moran is a professor of sociology and criminology.