Americans seek head of public enemy number one

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The Independent Online
An atmosphere of public vengefulness reminiscent of the lynch mob will surround the reconvening of the court in Denver, Colorado, today for the sentence hearing of Timothy McVeigh. From relatives of his victims to the over-excited self-righteousness of the American media, the message is unanimous: show no mercy.

The man whose truck bomb killed 168 people and destroyed much of the Oklahoma City federal building on 19 April, 1995, has become the vanquished public enemy number one, worthy of nothing except the electric chair. From the moment that the verdict on McVeigh - guilty on all 11 counts, from conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction to first degree murder - was announced on Monday afternoon, there was an immediate, and distasteful, show of euphoria.

Relatives of some of the victims, waiting outside the Denver courthouse, jumped for joy, shouting their delight. "Yes, yes," shouted one man, punching his fist in the air, while the mother of one victim said: "I want the death penalty. An eye for an eye. You don't take lives and get to keep your own."

The prosecution layers were cheered as they left the courthouse, whereas McVeigh's lawyer was booed and whistled.

The media networks went into overdrive. Every news programme, talk show, discussion, replaced its scheduled topic with the McVeigh verdict. And the direction was the same: the sooner this arch-felon is executed, the better.

The sheer scale of the killing and destruction in Oklahoma City help to explain the extraordinary attention and high emotions that accompanied this trial, as do the live television coverage of the gruesome aftermath of the bombing and the emblematic picture of a state trooper carrying a dead child from the wreckage that was beamed around the world. There was much pent-up anger and sorrow to be released. But there were other factors, too. For the first time in living memory, America had to deal with a successful act of mass terrorism committed by one of her own: a white, all-American boy, who served his country in war, and professed to patriotism.

America has had presidents assassinated, it had the New York Trade Center bombing, which was attributed to Middle Eastern terrorists, but rarely has it had civilians killed, en masse and deliberately, by a fellow-countryman.

What is more, McVeigh was not a random killer. He was a patriot, however distorted, and he had a cause: the destruction of the state. One of the arguments his counsel is expected to use in mitigation is that he was outraged by the killings of militia members at Waco in Texas the previous year, and believed that he was avenging their deaths. Waco, for him, was evidence that the state was corrupt.

This is a feeling of hostility and alienation not unknown to soldiers returned from an unpopular war and one that can foster revolt. It is shared by the dozens of unofficial militia groups dotted around the United States. McVeigh himself was said during the trial to have planned that his act would trigger a nationwide revolt.

However, unrealistic this ambition, it characterises his crime as a conscious act of rebellion, not - as would be more comforting for America to believe - a random act by a deranged individual.

There was another, more positive reason why this trial attracted the avid attention and aroused the emotions it did. It was the first big trial of national interest since the trial of OJ Simpson.

In many ways, it turned out to be an honourable opposite of that trial. Already, it is being hailed as a model of how the American judicial system ought to work, starting from the decision to hold it elsewhere than Oklahoma City, to the care with which the jury weighed the evidence. The proceedings took only five weeks; there were few side arguments and challenges. There was none of the media circus that attended the OJ Simpson trial.

But, as the response to the verdict so clearly illustrated, the comparison of the two trials is not quite valid. The OJ Simpson trial divided America along the particularly sensitive line of race. The trial of Timothy McVeigh, may have put America back together again, but the simplistic cry for vengeance it provoked was not entirely to its credit.