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America runs on the same moral and cultural batteries that propelled McVeigh.

Related Gully Coverage

McVeigh's Got Competition
Injustice, American values, and the death penalty.

Oklahoma Kills Black Lesbian
Her doubtful distinctions in death.

Why You Should Oppose the Death Penalty
Includes racist, homophobic and class biases.

The shadow of violent abolitionist John Brown hangs over Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing.

U.S. Kills McVeigh:
The All-American Snuff Show

by Toby Eglund

JUNE 17, 2001. The liberal The New York Times and the conservative The Daily Oklahoman have nothing in common, except for one thing: they both hated and despised Timothy McVeigh and wanted him to be killed.

So did the rest of the U.S. media, which last week lapsed into sanctimonious editorial-page lockstep, while their news desks busily publicized the federal government's morally titillating snuff show in Terre Haute.

That McVeigh killed 168 "innocent people," as the relativist cliché would have it, and showed no remorse, is generally cited as the reason for the remarkable loathing and lack of compassion he elicited among the Fourth Estate. That has fake written all over.

A more likely reason is that McVeigh could not be explained without a difficult examination of America's romance with death and small-town patriotism. He was a living mirror held in front of our faces, but we pretended it wasn't there. Incited by the media and the political class, left to right, the entire country indulged in McVeigh denial for six years. The victims of the bomb he set off were used as pawns. Their horrible deaths were sentimentalized and memorialized, and are now being sold as Oklahoma City's main tourist attraction.

Even facing his own death, McVeigh did not want pity or compassion. He saw himself as catalyst and teacher, a patriot holding the U.S. government accountable for federalist abuses in Waco, Ruby Ridge, and the Gulf War. He yielded nothing more to the interpreter classes, desperate to grasp any diversionary straws. As Stacey McVeigh (no relation) wrote in London's The Guardian, he "confounded everyone by his stubborn refusal to be neither redneck psychopath nor born-again repentant, the stereotype open to homegrown American killers."

McVeigh's unrepentant "opacity" (his refusal to be a pawn in the national state of denial) and our opinion shapers' refusal to consider that America runs on the same moral and cultural batteries that propelled McVeigh, means they had to turn him into a self-made monster.

This fear of history and the terrors of self-examination haunt the recent editorials in The Times and The Oklahoman celebrating McVeigh's killing.

"The Army did not form Mr. McVeigh. The gulf war did not alienate him. He left the military only a little more completely who he was when he joined it. He was his own invention," thundered The Times.

And The Oklahoman: "McVeigh's lead attorney disgraced himself by trying to paint his client as something more than a monster. He was also a soldier, a son and a brother, Robert Nigh says. This is patently offensive...Soldier, brother and son? No! We must not remember McVeigh this way because he forfeited that right when he killed so many soldiers, brothers and sons."

Both try very hard to reassure their readers that McVeigh was an anomaly, and that his reading of American history as a history of righteous violence rewarded was wrong.

One of McVeigh's heroes was America's own John Brown, a fanatic, a madman and a murderer to most politicians of his time (Lincoln repudiated him), but defended by Thoreau and Emerson as a freedom-fighter and anti-slavery absolutist. Thoreau called him "an angel of light." Emerson said of him: "That new saint, than whom nothing purer or more brave was ever by love of men into conflict and death...will make the gallows glorious like the cross."

McVeigh's reading of American history was no worse than those of The Times and The Oklahoman. What he misread were his circumstances.

An anomaly? Only in that McVeigh acted on his beliefs, rooted in an all-American, small-town, Christian, patriotic upbringing, and had the military zealot's skills and detachment to do great harm. "We are left to wonder what chance event might have turned Mr. McVeigh into one of us..." said The Times. But Timothy McVeigh was, sadly, one of us.

Related links:

For The Daily Oklahoman editorial, "The 'Face of Evil' Meets His Maker" (June 12, 2001).

For The New York Times editorial, "History and Timothy McVeigh" (June 11, 2001). Registration required.

The Washington Post's thoughtful journalistic anomaly: An Ordinary Boy's Extraordinary Rage.

For PBS's John Brown's Holy War.

For Henry David Thoreau's "A Plea for Captain John Brown."

For McVeigh's Got Competition

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