On forgiving McVeigh

I'm the third of eight children and grew up on a dairy farm, and I've run a service station in Oklahoma City for the last 34 years. Until April 19, 1995 - the day my daughter Julie and 167 others were killed in the bomb blast that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Building - my life was very simple. I had a little girl and loved her a lot.

Julie had a rough start; she was born premature, but she survived and grew healthy and strong. She had just graduated from Marquette University with a degree in Spanish and started a job as a translator for the Social Security Administration. At the time of her death, she was dating an Air Force lieutenant named Eric. The day after Julie was killed, I found out that they had decided to announce their engagement in two weeks.

All my life I have opposed the death penalty. Friends used to tell me that if anyone ever killed one of my family members, I would change. "What if Julie got raped and murdered?" But I always said I'd stick to my guns. Until April 19.

The first four or five weeks after the bombing I had so much anger, pain, hatred, and revenge that I realized why, when someone is charged with a violent crime, they transport him in a bullet-proof vest. It's because people like me would try to kill him.

By the end of 1995 I was in such bad shape, I was drinking heavily and smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. I was stuck on April 19. But I knew I had to do something about it.

That's when I went down to the bombing site.

It was a cold January afternoon, and I stood there watching hundreds of people walking along the chain link fence that surrounded the lot where the Murrah Building had stood. I was thinking about the death penalty, and how I wanted nothing more than to see Timothy McVeigh (and anyone else responsible for the bombing) fried. But I was also beginning to wonder whether I would really feel any better once they were executed. Every time I asked myself that question, I got the same answer: No. Nothing positive would come from it. It wouldn't bring Julie back. After all, it was hatred and revenge that made me want to see them dead, and those two things were the very reason that Julie and 167 others were dead.

Once I arrived at this realization, I returned to my original belief that executing criminals is wrong. Since then I have become a leading opponent of the death penalty, constantly flying from one city to the next, telling people about my daughter and why the death penalty is wrong. The speaking and traveling keep me busy, but they don't bring me much peace. Nothing like going to visit Timothy McVeigh's father.

Bill McVeigh is as much a victim as I am, if not more. I can't imagine the pain he and his family have been through. I've lost a daughter, and he's going to lose a son. I have a son myself, and if he was convicted of killing 168 people, I don't know how I'd deal with that. Bill has to live with that for the rest of his life.

I first saw Bill McVeigh on television a few weeks after the bombing. He was working in his flower bed, and he looked up at the camera for a couple seconds. When he did, I saw a father with deep, deep pain in his eyes. I could recognize it, because I was living that pain. I knew right then that someday I had to go tell him that I truly cared how he felt.

In 1998, I finally picked up the courage to knock on his door. The day I visited him, he was out in his garden again, and we spent about half an hour just getting acquainted, kicking dirt and pulling weeds. Then we went into the house so I could meet Jennifer, his daughter. As we walked in I noticed a few family photos on the wall over the kitchen table. The largest one was of Timothy. I kept glancing up at that picture. I knew they were watching me, so I said, "Gosh, what a good-looking kid." Bill had told me outdoors that he was having a lot of trouble showing emotion - that he couldn't cry. But when I commented on that photograph, he said, "That's Tim's high school graduation picture," and a great big tear rolled down his cheek.

We talked for another hour and a half. When I got ready to leave I shook Bill's hand and extended mine to Jennifer. She didn't take it. She hugged me around the neck. I don't know who started crying first as we embraced, but we were both in tears. Finally I said, "Honey, we're in this together for the rest of our lives. And we can make the most of it, if we choose. I don't want your brother to die, and I'll do everything in my power to prevent it." Never in my life have I felt closer to God than I did at that time. I felt like a thousand pounds had been lifted off my shoulders.

I've had no desire to meet my daughter's killer. Sometimes I'm not even sure I've really forgiven him. I was speaking at Oklahoma State University one time, and the bishop of Tulsa was there. I was telling the group about my struggle, and that I didn't feel that I had forgiven McVeigh. Anyway, the bishop chimed in and said, "But I think you have forgiven him." And he started quoting some verse from Scripture, which I'm not very good at doing. But he's a bishop, and I suppose he's qualified. I guess he was trying to convince me that I have forgiven Timothy, and maybe I have.

I still have my moments of rage. I remember crossing the campus of a high school in California and looking around as I walked. The place reminded me of Julie's high school.

Suddenly this rage just hit me. So here I was, getting ready to speak to a whole auditorium full of kids about my opposition to the death penalty, and I was thinking to myself, that guy "doesn't even deserve to live."

I know I don't want Timothy executed, because once he's gone, it will be too late to choose to forgive him. As long as he's alive, I have to deal with my feelings and emotions. It's a real struggle, but it's one I need to wage.

Forgiving is not something you just wake up one morning and decide to do. You have to work through your anger and your hatred as long as it's there. You try to live each day a little better than the one before.

I do have setbacks, even when I'm sure I want to forgive. That's probably why I can't handle that word "closure." The first time someone asked me about closure was the day after Julie's burial. How can there ever be true closure? A part of my heart is gone.

Bud Welch runs a gas station in Oklahoma City. This article is excerpted from the book 'Why Forgive?' by Johann Christoph Arnold (Plough).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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