Vengeance? Executing McVeigh Would Be Moral

Washington Post, June 8, 1997.


Timothy McVeigh deserves to be punished. Almost all of us can agree on that, but does he deserve to be executed?

The Denver jury has to answer that question, but the larger question is whether we are justified in imposing the death penalty on anyone, not only McVeigh but also on Ted Bundy who was executed in 1989, or John Wayne Gacy who was executed in 1994, or, to refer to the case that started me thinking about the issue 35 years ago, Adolf Eichmann, executed in 1962. Opinion is divided on this. But I was persuaded by Shakespeare that justice requires capital punishment.

Until the Eichmann trial in Israel, I had no reason to think about the punishment of criminals in general or capital punishment in particular. I was aware that there was disagreement concerning the purpose of punishment — deterrence, rehabilitation or retribution — but I had no reason to then decide which was right, or whether, depending on the circumstances, they were all right. I did know that retribution was held in ill repute among criminologists.

Then I began to reflect on the work of Simon Wiesenthal, who had devoted himself since 1945 exclusively to the task of hunting down the Nazis who had survived the war and escaped into the world. Why did he hunt them, I asked myself, and what did he hope to accomplish by finding them? And why did I respect him for devoting his life to this singular task?

American Enterprise Institute