Vultures gather on the high ground to witness a killing

America is lapping up every detail, however inconsequential, of the final countdown to first federal execution for 38 years
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The Independent US

It was early evening and on a specially erected stand with the Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary as a backdrop, a TV reporter and his female colleague were talking into the cameras.



It was early evening and on a specially erected stand with the Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary as a backdrop, two television reporters were talking into the cameras.

"We will be back at 10pm with all the latest news from the prison and what is happening outside the prison walls," said the well-groomed man before smiling at his colleague, who, unbeknown to her viewers, was standing on a plastic stool to make her look a similar height.

Of course, there was no news from the prison, or indeed from outside the establishment. This, after all, was Saturday evening, a good 36 hours before McVeigh was due to be executed, and there was really very little new information to talk about.

The latest piece of "news" to emerge was that in a letter to his local newspaper, the Buffalo News, McVeigh had expressed what was interpreted by some as an apology. "I am sorry that those people had to lose their lives," he wrote. "But that is the nature of the beast. It's understood going in what the human toll will be."

In truth, those letters, published yesterday, offered nothing more than McVeigh has already said. But on a quiet Saturday evening, with soft light bathing the red-brick prison and its razor wire fences, and with airtime to fill, it was something with which to feed the beast.

The beast is all around the federal facility here in Terre Haute, as the hour draws closer to McVeigh's death. It is in the dozens of TV satellite vans parked up on the main driveway into the prison, skirting a field of low-growing soy beans.

It lurks in the hundreds of square feet of mobile homes which are being used as editing suites by the various networks. It is there too in the "press filing centre" run by a private company where, for the handsome fee of $1,200 (about £860), reporters can write up what little there is to see and file it to their organisations. It sits in the dozens of electric golf carts rented by the media to ferry themselves around the prison grounds.

And all this in a place which the French founders chose to name for its "high ground".

Of course, it would be hypocritical and pious for any reporter to criticise the media circus that has grown up around McVeigh's slow but certain journey towards the death chamber, an event now fixed for 7am local time (1pm BST).

But the beast that is feeding on this one man's execution is not simply the media. For months, the execution of McVeigh has assumed a place within the wider US public consciousness that is only partly fuelled in a one-way exchange by newspapers and television channels.

You hear it everywhere. From the taxi-driver, to the sales staff in the fuel station, to the man at the car-hire desk. The people of Terre Haute might claim to be fed up with all the fuss and prefer to concentrate instead on the Miss Indiana Beauty Pageant which is taking place, but at the same time they are also in thrall to the same obsession.

"I don't normally read newspapers, but I will read about this," said the receptionist at the motel, asked if she was interested in what was taking place less than a mile away. "I also want to go down to the prison just to have a look."

Part of the fascination is surely that there is so much information available in regard to every spit and cough of this execution, the first carried out by the federal government for 38 years. The world knows which three chemicals [sodium pentothal, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride] will make up the cocktail injected into McVeigh's arm this morning. It knows the dimensions of the cell in which he was to be held last night, it knows the number of personal photographs (five) he was able to take with him in the early hours of Sunday morning when he was moved to the holding cell alongside the death chamber.

It knows too that McVeigh will be executed wearing khaki trousers, a white T-shirt, white briefs, white socks and slip-on shoes. It knows that his last words will most likely be those from the poem "Invictus", by the Victorian poet William Ernest Henley, who wrote in 1875: "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."

And once McVeigh is dead ­ estimated to take up to 10 minutes once the three chemicals have in turn sedated him, stopped him breathing and then stopped his heart ­ officials will release details of his final meal, for which he was allowed to spend $20. The last federally executed prisoner, Victor Feguer, who was hanged in 1963, chose a single olive in the hope that the "fruit from the tree of peace" would aid reconciliation.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has certainly helped to create the beast. Aiming for transparency, but achieving rather a sense of surrealism, it has produced press packs for the media. Within are contained all number of useless pieces of information, including a short biography of the prison warden, Harley Lappin ­ "married with two children" ­ whose signal this morning to the executioners "We are ready", will be the last words McVeigh will hear.

The press pack makes strange reading over dinner in one of Terre Haute's many "theme restaurants". As you sit over your sirloin, pondering that the man about to die is just six weeks younger than yourself, you read that execution by lethal injection was selected because "in an area where issues of humanity are of paramount concern, [it] is believed to be the most humane method of execution". ("Is everything all right with your dinner, sir? Can I bring you another beer?")

There are a series of photographs too, showing among other things the holding cell in which McVeigh was this morning waiting to die, as well as the terrifying plastic-covered dentist's seat, or gurney, into which he will be strapped and executed. It is made by a company called Ritter.

But the most surreal of all these enclosures is a flyer from a local restaurant, which informs the media that the Buffalo Wild Wings Grill and Bar "wants your business". It adds: "When you are in town you will need a fun place to spend some of your time. Enjoy hours at a time playing NTN trivia and watching our 24 TVs."

And while there has been plenty written about the victims of McVeigh's terrible crime, nowhere among any of this, not among the press packs, not on the airwaves, not on the television channels, and ­ with few exceptions ­ in any of the newspapers, has there been any real discussion of what fuelled this angry young man and whether this is the most appropriate way in which to deal with him.

Timothy James McVeigh is due to be executed this morning. Prison officials say that by Thursday, all media equipment must have been removed from the facility. By then the beast will have long moved on.

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