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Urban Rhythms

Death Be not Proud

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 6/13/2001

Timothy McVeigh's last written statement, as relayed by his attorney, was the 19th-century poem "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley. The poem ends like this: "It matters not how strait the gate,/ How charged with punishments the scroll,/ I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."

This is what McVeigh, in his dying moments, wanted us to know about him. What a fool! What a poor, sick, arrogant, muddle-headed, deluded fool.

Master of his fate? On June 11, at a little after 8 a.m. EDT, we led McVeigh from his death-row holding cell in chains and strapped him to a gurney. We inserted an IV into his right leg. We then drew back the curtains so that about 25 of us could glare at McVeigh through smoke-glassed windows. We gave him a chance to make one last statement before we killed him, but McVeigh was speechless. Our warden at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., read the judgment and commitment order. Then we pumped McVeigh full of drugs, and he died. If McVeigh chose to believe himself in control of that process, well, more power to him.

Captain of his soul? Who really knows? All we know for certain is that the 33-year-old has gone winging off before his time to meet his maker. Whether he will be judged harshly in the afterlife or forgiven is a matter either of conjecture or faith. If McVeigh chooses to believe that his maker will honor his captaincy, well, good luck to him.

In the end, though, he had about as much power over his destiny as some wounded animal, scraped off the concrete by a higher power and put to sleep to end its misery. He was doomed to die from the moment he chose to kill for his beliefs.

I've always considered "Invictus" a sophomoric poem, good enough for a graduating class of giggling high schoolers but not really applicable to real life. Written in 1875 by an English man of letters, it is an overblown work, chock full of false bravado about bearing up manfully in the face of suffering. "Out of the night that covers me," Henley wrote, "Black as the Pit from pole to pole,/ I thank whatever gods may be/ For my unconquerable soul./ In the fell clutch of circumstance/ I have not winced nor cried aloud./ Under the bludgeonings of chance/ My head is bloody, but unbow'd."

The poem goes on and on in a similar vein before that final bit of nonsense about being "master of my fate" and "captain of my soul." Yeah, I memorized the poem in high school and was suitably impressed for about 10 minutes, until I dipped my big toe into the real world.

In my experience, life is neither that simple nor that easy, and navigating it isn't nearly as heroic. Life is ponderous and complicated and confusing, and the best anyone can hope for is to muddle through, clutching at tiny victories and trudging on past the defeats. And the gods do not care--really and truly do not care--whether we cringe and cower from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or take them bravely in the chest. Personally, I prefer to duck.

I can see, though, why the poem's promise of clarity might appeal to a mad-dog terrorist. You are angry at the government for the series of mistakes that led to the loss of life in Waco, Texas, and the god-awful lies that followed. You want to strike back, but the government is a massive, unwieldy thing, as ephemeral, as hard to pin down, as life itself. But you're a mad-dog terrorist and, fired with the arrogance of certainty, you sweep aside all the questions and objections and blow up a federal building full of innocent men, women, and children.

And when you are hunted down and prosecuted for your crime, you console yourself with thoughts of your "unconquerable soul," and how though your head may be "bloody" it remains "unbow'd." Victorian-era poetry is a tried and true antidote to doubt.

Curiously, McVeigh's quixotic quest for clarity by any means necessary reminds me of us, his executioners. We too have swept aside any doubts and confusion about our right to impose the ultimate, irreversible sanction. Condemned by the rest of the civilized world, the United Nations, and the pope, our conviction remains unconquerable, our heads unbowed.

When our president declared, "Today the United States of America carried out the severest sentence for the gravest of crimes. The victims of the Oklahoma City have been given not vengeance, but justice," he voiced his unconquerable belief that he is right. No--he expressed our unconquerable belief, because he is our elected representative and the death penalty is our law. We put McVeigh to sleep on June 11--not "the United States of America," not some distant they. We are all responsible.

Out of the night that covers us, black from the Pit from pole to pole, we are joined together--mad-dog terrorist and mad-dog executioners. We deserve one another. As long as the death penalty remains on our books, we are very much like him in our arrogance.

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