The Common Good
September-October 2001

A Devout Meditation in Memory of Timothy McVeigh

by Rose Marie Berger | September-October 2001

We killed McVeigh to make it clear that he was not like us.

One of the most disturbing facts that came out in the Timothy McVeigh trial was that the examining psychiatrist pronounced him perfectly sane. "He has no major mental illness," said Dr. John Smith, who evaluated McVeigh during his trial for the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. "He did not commit this act because he was deranged or misinterpreting reality," Smith continued, "but because he was serious."

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In Thomas Merton's 1966 essay, "A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolph Eichmann," Merton unveils the horror of such sanity. Eichmann too was judged perfectly sane. "We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction," said Merton. "And now it dawns on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous."

McVeigh held a mirror up to our face. He forced us to stare at a distorted version of ourselves. He tried to imitate the Judeo-Christian moral values embedded in our culture, and instead misread and perverted them. Unless we look at how sanity produces horror, our spiritual values will erode and, at the end of the day, the perversion will stand.

The ethical scandal of the Hebrew Exodus and Jesus' crucifixion is that both take power from the oppressor and give it to the victim. In this way, suffering-especially unjust suffering-endows the sufferer with moral power. McVeigh identified himself with the suffering victims at the Branch Davidian compound and Ruby Ridge. He perceived their suffering to be unnecessary and unjust. He saw them as victims of an abusive government that misused "righteous violence" to advance its own agenda. In this reasoning McVeigh acquired moral power, and felt obliged to use that power on behalf of the victims. His reasoning, so far, is not that different from Gandhi's in unmasking the violence of British imperialism or the students in Tiananmen Square unveiling the brutality of Chinese Maoism. This logic is something we are familiar with, whether we agree with the politics or not.

What do we see in the mirror McVeigh held up to our sane face? We see a similar pattern of logic. As Americans we identified with the unjust suffering of the 168 victims of the Murrah Building bomb, particularly the children. This empathy gave us a certain moral power and an obligation. We used our secular moral mechanism (the law) not only to correct the injustice, but also publicly to execute the bomber. Capital punishment is our way of saying that some abuses are intolerable to us and must be purged (since it is not a deterrent or restorative). As a social function, we killed McVeigh to expose the lie that his violence was in any way righteous or justified. We killed him to make it clear that he was in no way like us.

NOW THAT HE'S dead, how do we feel? We've engaged in an elaborate act of ritualized violence and come out the victors-but not unscathed. We sit in the empty chairs at the Murrah Building memorial. We look at the vacant execution table. Spiritual despair, if left alone, will suck the life out of us. Our capacity for affection, our desire to be compassionate, will erode away. With each act of retribution, whether by terrorists or the government, we become less human.

Is this where the Judeo-Christian ethic takes us? One victim swapped for another victim? If this is liberation, better we were left as slaves. Where did McVeigh (and we) go wrong? The perversion happened when we confused sacrifice with self-sacrifice. McVeigh's act was not self-sacrificial, but one that made more victims. His moral power crumbled at precisely that point-as did ours when, instead of taking the suffering, we took his life.

There is no "sane" Judeo-Christian ethic divorced from a rather insane belief in God. Judaism and Christianity can not liberate our souls if we practice them outside the transcendent framework of God's mercy and grace. Without these, even the best morality, when pushed to extremes, will be dead. The theological scandal of Christianity is that God chose to become one of us and submit to our righteous moral codes in order to expose our delusional addiction to redemptive violence. Even now when we are still too weak to resist the temptation to kill, God rises up in our emptiness, insisting that love still have a place in our hearts.

Rose Marie Berger, an assistant editor at Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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