A fervent illusion keeps cropping up about Timothy McVeigh's execution today - that if we can only catch sight of the mass murderer in his ultimate moments, then something clarifying, righteous, and (heaven help us) satisfying will have taken place, and we will be better for it.
What might the pictures, shown on closed-circuit television to survivors and victims' families, reveal? Perhaps, having thus far failed to show any remorse, if McVeigh now displays a flicker of contrition, shows a twinge of regret - or performs it, rather, since he will be aware that he is appearing before a live audience - we will be able to brandish the proof that he knows he did wrong.
Time will tell just what anyone will learn by viewing the execution, but moral advance for anyone is unlikely. Will we be assured - we, the onlookers who were happy to see him condemned - that we have seized the moral high ground? Will we congratulate ourselves in the knowledge that capital punishment accomplishes moral ends?
Surely the pictures of McVeigh at one moment alive and at the next moment dead will purport to bring some assurance that evil is punished. The easy assumption will be that, once McVeigh is gone, we will be purged of the evil he did. But assurance of his physical demise will be no assurance of anything more than that this man is gone, period, and we are freed of him, though not of the results of his actions.
Then, I fear, our certificates of moral excellence will prove to be not such an impressive achievement after all. Did we not already know that we were better than the mass killer? How much more proof did we need? And since we are, most of us, better than he is, just how good does that make us? Now that we know we are better, what will we do with our goodness?
The truth of Timothy McVeigh is woefully simple. From crackpot ideas and other materials easily procured, the man built a bomb and committed 168 acts of murder in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. No picture will alter that fact in the slightest. No picture deserves to. The stark truth that we need to stare at is not visible, and it is the fact that people do things like this. And this auxiliary fact: They do them because they have vile ideas in the name of which they hold other people's lives to be expendable. And this one: The ideas that McVeigh killed for remain in circulation.
What we need to stare at is the big, invisible truth that ideas have consequences.
Sometimes a controversy, like the one about televising this execution, is most interesting for what it conceals. No picture will terminate the mystery of McVeigh, clear up anything about what he did.
Nor will his execution end it. Just as he and his ilk celebrate Hitler's birthday, some will mark the day he dies as a foundational date, a moment when they pledge to renew evil, because, by the dim light of their diminished minds, they and only they are the victims. This is among their worst ideas, the paranoid splendor in the name of which they kill, every martyrdom confirming their self-inflated righteousness, every picture lining the walls of the shrines they build to revenge.
Todd Gitlin is professor of culture, journalism, and sociology at New York University. His latest book is 'Sacrifice' (Metropolitan, 1999).
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor