The taking of life is wrong, even if done by the state

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The Independent Online

Nothing can excuse Timothy McVeigh's part in the intentional killing of 168 people in the Oklahoma bombing six years ago. Equally, however, nothing can excuse his execution, or that of 33 other people in the United States this year.

As ever with executions sanctioned by law, the details of McVeigh's final hours ­ the last meal on which he was allowed to spend up to $20, the padded lounger to which he will be strapped in the green-tiled execution chamber ­ serve to emphasise the inhumanity of the premeditated taking of his life.

If McVeigh's crime contravenes fundamental moral law, so does his punishment. It becomes philosophically awkward to explain the moral difference between blowing up a federal government building in the sincere belief that it was "a legitimate tactic" in the battle against the US state and murdering a man by lethal injection in the sincere belief that it is a just punishment and a deterrent to others.

One of the other arguments against the death penalty ­ the risk of executing the wrong person ­ does not appear to apply in this case, as McVeigh has admitted guilt. But there are two other compelling practical reasons for thinking it a mistake. One is that it still seems unlikely that he acted alone, as he insists. If he had accomplices, then by killing him the US authorities are making it much more likely that they will escape justice. The other is that he is a better martyr dead than alive. Even if he did plant the Oklahoma bomb on his own, it is obvious that he is not alone in the wider sense, that there are plenty of other very strange people in America who believe the federal government is an evil conspiracy against the people. For these people events such as the disastrous storming of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco ­ on the anniversary of which McVeigh carried out his attack ­ assume a symbolic significance far removed from reality. Who knows what twisted importance McVeigh's death will assume once he is pronounced dead, about seven minutes after the lethal chemicals start to flow into his veins?

The case against the death penalty, however, ultimately rests on what it says about the moral character of the society which sanctions it. Supposedly civilised nations have moved from hangings as a form of public entertainment, via the guillotine to semi-public executions by electric chair and lethal injection in windowless cells attended by representatives of victims, accused and the press, whose presence is required to ensure that justice is done.

But it is impossible ever to soften the cold, calculating immorality of deliberate killing.