The Death Penalty


IF ANYONE in the United States deserves the death penalty, certainly it is Timothy McVeigh, the convicted murderer of some 168 people in the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing on April l9, l995. His will be will the first execution carried out by federal authorities in decades. Hopefully it will be the last.


       I say that <not> because I believe such executions will deter further acts of terrorism by instilling the fear of God or even just a fear of death, into potential terrorists, but because such executions will finally be seen as counterproductive. When one makes a celebrity out of a murderer or a martyr out of terrorist, one only promotes more of the same.


McVeigh deliberately chose April 19 for the date of his crime as a protest over the Waco showdown in 1993 ‑ convinced that the U. S. government is an oppressive force out to suppress individual freedoms. And in refusing to contest his own execution, or even requesting it be carried out he hopes to prove his point. And he could be right at least if some of the long‑standing attitudes prevalent in some of the 50 states become the policy for the whole nation.


Take, for example, Texas, which executed 40 people last year [2000]. Compared to China which admitted to executing 1,263 of its over 1.27 billion citizens last year, your chances of being executed in Texas (with a population of just about 20 million) are about one and a half times greater. Fortunately for those still awaiting execution in Texas' death row, the Texas State Legislature is looking at a moratorium to examine the even‑handedness of the practice. But one can only wonder.


In those states where Old Testament-style biblical fundamentalism seems to reign supreme, are we then to conclude that even‑handedness will also include the death penalty for idolaters (Deut. 13:10), adulterers (Deut. 22:22), abductors, or even those who strike or curse their father or mother (Exod. 21:15‑17)?  Has not the New Testament taught us anything?


So, too, the idea that death of a murderer will somehow provide "closure" to the families of the victims is psychologically suspect. Even the chaplain to the Texas death row has expressed doubt, based on his long experience with those to be executed, that these families, especially those who choose to watch McVeigh's execution on closed‑circuit TV, will find the peace they are looking for. The results, he says, could turn out to be quite the opposite.


One can only wonder then about a nation like ours that likes to call itself "Christian".  Do we somehow think, ignoring what Jesus said about those who take up the sword dying by it (Matthew 26:52), that the cycle of violence can be broken by still more violence? Or do we really believe that God does not desire the death of the sinner but his reform (see Ezk.18:23 // 2 Peter 3:9)?


Or do we naively imagine that someone like McVeigh is going to repent in the face of a "death that he imagines will make him a hero to every radical anarchist in the country? I suppose such miracles can still happen, and I'll pray that it does ‑- but I wouldn't bet on it.


R. W. Kropf    5/2/2001                                          deathpen.doc   01-05-02