Now that Timothy McVeigh has been put to death, and some people’s need for revenge or punishment may be satisfied, we can begin to think calmly of how he learned his twisted sense of right and wrong from the government that executed him.
No one with an ounce of moral understanding can justify the bombing of a building that resulted in the deaths of 168 people. But McVeigh didn’t have to look far to find that the United States government had done just that, but on a larger scale.
In the war against Iraq, of which McVeigh was a decorated veteran, on Feb. 15, 1991, the US Air Force dropped a bomb on an air raid shelter in Bagdad, killing more than 600 people, many of them women and children. There had been many bombings of buses, trains, highways, hospitals, neighborhoods, in which civilians were killed, and where the government described them as accidents.
Of course, they were not quite accidents, because if you drop huge numbers of bombs on a city, it is inevitable that innocent people will die.
However, in the case of the air raid shelter, the United States conceded that the bombing was deliberate and justified this by the claim that the air raid shelter was a communications site.
Reporters going into the rubble immediately after the bombing found not the slightest evidence of that. And even if it were, would that justify a massacre (there’s no other name for it) of hundreds of men, women and children? If McVeigh had not been in the infantry but in the Air Force, and had dropped that bomb, killing more than twice the number he killed in Oklahoma, he would be alive and perhaps have another medal pinned to his chest.
In defending his bombing of the federal building, with all those dead and wounded, McVeigh used the term ”collateral damage” exactly the words used by our government to describe the deaths of civilians in our bombing of various countries, whether Iraq or Panama or Yugoslavia. My Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines collateral as accompanying or related, but secondary or subordinate. Both McVeigh and the leaders of the United States government considered the toll of human life secondary to whatever else was destroyed, and therefore acceptable.
McVeigh is no longer able to let his demented notion of morality lead to any more deaths. The United States government, on the other hand, is very much alive, and capable of more and more bombings – like the ones taking place almost every day in Iraq – and the civilian deaths will be justified once more as ”collateral damage.”
The day after Timothy McVeigh’s execution, the Boston Herald ran a banner headline on its front page: IT’S OVER!
But it is not over. Terrorism is the killing of innocent people in order to send a message (those are McVeigh’s words and also the words of government spokesmen when our planes have bombed some foreign city). So long as our government engages in terrorism, claiming always that it is done for democracy or freedom or to send a message to some other government, there will be more Timothy McVeighs, following the example.
No, it is not over. Individual acts of terrorism will continue, and that will be called – rightly – fanaticism. Government terrorism, on a much larger scale, will continue, and will be called ”foreign policy.” That is the perverted sense of morality which now rules and will go on ruling, until Americans decide that all terrorism is wrong and will not be tolerated.
Published in the Boston Globe • June 16, 2001