Timothy McVeigh and Capital Punishment

By Jason Jackson

Six days before Timothy McVeigh’s scheduled execution, several thousand pages of federal documents were “discovered,” to which his attorneys had not been provided access. During a presidential press conference on May 11, a reporter asked, “What if these documents were found six days after the execution?”

What does this question imply? It implies the possibility that an innocent person might be put to death. Supposedly, this should convince us that capital punishment is wrong.

The morality of the death penalty is examined every time an execution has media attention. Here are some common objections to the death penalty:

  • Capital punishment may take innocent lives.
  • Capital punishment is implemented with racial prejudice.
  • Capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime.
  • Capital punishment focuses on punishment and not rehabilitation.
  • Capital punishment is wrong because “violence-begets-violence.”
  • Capital punishment is barbaric. It has no place in a “civilized society.”
  • Capital punishment is immoral; it violates the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”

Are these objections valid? Should murderers live or die?

  1. Should the possibility of executing an innocent person abolish the death penalty altogether? Advocates of this objection are inconsistent. Such reasoning would demand that criminals should not be imprisoned, for an innocent person might be unjustly incarcerated.

    The justice system distinguishes between cases of murder and manslaughter, as does the Old Testament. Therefore, it seems reasonable to withhold capital punishment in cases with mitigating circumstances. But, where there is a moral certainty about the malicious, willful, and premeditated act of murder, it not only is just to enforce the ultimate penalty – it is obligatory.
  2. Capital punishment supposedly is implemented with racial prejudice. That may be true; however, this does not prove that capital punishment is wrong. The manner in which the American courts enforce the death penalty does not determine the ultimate moral question.
  3. Is capital punishment a deterrent? Anti-death penalty advocates insist that “there is no proof that capital punishment deters a crime.” It seems axiomatic that it does, but the fact of the matter is there is no measurable way to determine when just punishment deters and when it does not (i.e. How many murders were not committed last night? for what reasons?).

    However, there is the documentation of this fact: the executed murderer certainly is “deterred” from killing again. Untold numbers of people would still be alive had repeat murderers been executed for their first capital offense.
  4. Does capital punishment focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation? Yes. Human beings do not have an intrinsic, absolute right to “rehabilitation.” This elevates the life of the murderer above that of the victim’s.

    The killing of another human being, with malice and forethought, is a crime against the Creator, in whose image we are made (Gen. 9:6). By committing such an act, the murderer forfeits his right to live.
  5. Since “violence-begets-violence,” we should not execute criminals. Many politicians and social advocates are inconsistent. Some abolitionists of the death penalty approved of the bombing of Kosovo. They cried out for justice, and could not “sit by and do nothing,” while Slobodan Milosovic committed heinous crimes against humanity.

    What about the trials at Nuremberg, where criminals were convicted and sentenced to death for the atrocities of the Nazi death-camps? Would the world have been a better place by ignoring Adolf Hitler? In order to believe that the “violence-begets-violence” argument is true, we must believe that the world would be better off, and there would be less violence in it, if murderers were not executed. How ridiculous!

    We know too much about the homicidal history of mankind to believe such an incredulous thing. The opposite is true. “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Eccl. 8:11).
  6. Capital punishment is barbaric, and it has no place in a civilized society. Can a society be labeled “civil,” when tens of thousands of people are murdered every year? Murders are committed by the second – this is barbaric.

    God, the Author of human life, authorizes civil authority to execute evil doers (Rom. 13:4). Government has the moral obligation – not merely the right – to exercise capital punishment, if such is done justly and consistently.
  7. The Sixth Commandment is no real objection to capital punishment. The commandment is a prohibition against murder. In the next chapter, the law of Moses authorized Israel to execute the murderer (Ex. 21:12). To use the Sixth Commandment as an objection to capital punishment is a misrepresentation of Scripture.

And so, what about McVeigh? He murdered 168 people. He admits it with no remorse. What else is there to say?