The State’s Dark Underside

Various loyal acolytes including CNN, most of the newspapers and the major networks worked diligently to make the killing of Timothy McVeigh into something of a solemn religious event that bolstered the power and dignity of the State and the Empire it fitfully tries to run. But I’m not sure it worked as it might have been intended to work – especially since so many loyal acolytes of the state religion are ambivalent at best about the death penalty – and it might have backfired, in any number of ways.

The wall-to-wall coverage of every conceivable detail of the death of the most prodigious mass murderer and certified Enemy of the State in recent times became ludicrous to most Americans long before McVeigh was strapped to a gurney and prepared for lethal injections. But most of the courtier press, although populated by people who have serious doubts about the legitimacy of the death penalty as a general policy – after all, no civilized European country uses it anymore – relished this death, savored this death, rubbed Americans’ noses in this death, and talked about it in terms of justice and closure rather than barbarism.


I suspect that Timothy McVeigh was so easily turned into a symbol of the possibility that the death penalty might sometimes be just because he struck at the State during a time when the State was feeling a bit shaky about its support in the general populace. He had to be demonized and he had be killed – in part because the government might not like further investigations into still-open questions like who knew about Timothy and his plans and when did they know it.

The mainstream and courtier media couldn’t understand all the fuss over Ruby Ridge and Waco, of course. After all, it was just the government keeping a firm disciplinary hand on unpleasant people who had unpleasant ideas and prejudices that would be laughed down in polite company. If some of the government agents got a bit trigger-happy or overbearing and some people died in the process, well that’s just part of keeping order in a country that still contains some unfortunately backward and retrograde people and beliefs.

Keeping the hoi-polloi under control was viewed in most establishment circles as commendable – remember that Janet Reno was viewed as an outsider in Washington until she performed the marvelous trick of taking responsibility without accountability for the holocaust and slaughter at Waco. That was a trick official Washington could appreciate and embrace, and it took Janet to its bosom from that moment on. The potentially troublesome outsider became the courageous woman of integrity capable of tough decisions.

But establishment circles were dimly aware that not all Americans shared this enlightened view of the proper way to handle unacceptable religious cultists. Not only did a few fringey types form or join self-styled militia groups, but millions of otherwise ordinary Americans out in flyover country had serious questions about the way the government handled the siege it had started and provoked at Waco. People were actually questioning the legitimacy of the American State and the empire over which it presided.


In such circumstances the bombing of the empire’s Murrah building in the provincial outpost of Oklahoma City (and from my eight years spent in the Imperial City I can tell you most people there view Oklahoma as a provincial outpost) was both tragedy and blessing. The bomber didn’t just strike against fellow citizens more or less at random, but at a symbol of imperial rule. And it turned out that he had similar feelings about Waco and some tenuous affiliation with the troublesome militia movement. The fact that the militias he had visited considered him too kooky and far-out to embrace only delayed for a few moments the full-court press against the right wing and anybody who had ever spoken out in criticism of the U.S. government as a precursor to and possibly an inciter of mass murder.

President Clinton played the whole tragedy beautifully, of course, using it to reinforce loyalty to the central state and suspicion of anybody who didn’t embrace it in all its power and glory. That was one of the many political tasks at which he excelled. Since the Oklahoma City bombing the militia movement has virtually disappeared from the American landscape. Timothy McVeigh (and whoever else may or may not have been involved in his nefarious plans and deeds) in one step made doubts about overweening federal power at least somewhat disreputable.

So the death of Timothy McVeigh became fairly inevitable and was conflated into an occasion of reinforcing state worship. The state had sustained an attack on its very self, on a concrete manifestation of its power and control, had found the perpetrator and determined to make him pay the ultimate price. The site of the attack had already become something of a shrine, filled with the most ironically appropriate tribute to government power one could imagine – ugly, stylized empty chairs that no human being could possible find comfortable. And those who make their living encouraging worship of state power swallowed their ordinary ambivalence about the death penalty and participated in the orgy of overblown coverage of this exercise of the ultimate imperial prerogative.


But even though almost no media outlet demurred from the excess, there was a certain edgy discomfort about much of the coverage, and not just because of widespread ambivalence about the death penalty. There are legitimate questions about just who might have known about or encouraged Timothy McVeigh before the bombing, about whether other bombs or explosions were involved (for a sampling of reasonably legitimate concerns see WorldNetDaily’s coverage). The best likely source (perhaps someday) of answers to those questions died on Monday.

The courtier press wasn’t particularly interested in seeking out answers to uncomfortable questions, but it was dimly aware they were extant. The fact that a certain number of viewers and readers would know that the cheerleading about justice by lethal injection masked journalistic dereliction was the uninvited and unwelcome guest – never acknowledged but still lurking in the shadows.

Then there is the fact that while the death penalty is still popular in the United States, this culture has really become shaky and wimpy about it. Time was that executions were held in public, a graphic reminder of the state’s power to mete out the ultimate punishment to traitors and other evildoers great and small. Executions were a public spectacle and insofar as they were supposed to serve as a deterrent and a reminder of just how seriously the State took certain crimes, they almost had to be public spectacles.

But our culture of official death is a bit queasy about actually seeing the death most members of society endorse and approve. We want criminals executed but we want it to be in a humane manner without suffering, and we don’t want to have to see it. We want to mete out suffering and death on the malefactors unlucky enough to live in Kosovo and Serbia, but we want to do it cleanly, surgically, from 15,000 feet, so there are no discernible human fingerprints and little actually visible human suffering.

The Empire wants to hang onto and expand its power, of course. But even the minions and acolytes of the Empire shrink a bit from staring the full implications of their lust for power – the blood that must necessarily be shed by enemies and those who are inconvenient – in the face. They know blood and brutality are necessary, but they want to pretend that it really isn’t as brutal as it is.


Perhaps it is because the denizens prefer to pretend about the true nature of power. Or perhaps it is, as I have discussed in a previous column, that the United States, as Swarthmore and American Enterprise Institute political scientist James Kurth has put it, is an "adolescent empire" lacking in maturity and hard-nosed realism. But while the coverage of the symbolic death of the Enemy of the State was unquestionably overdone, it lacked conviction, resonance, real belief.

Most Americans, as I have argued repeatedly, have no interest at all in being the center of an empire, the policeman of the world, the universal righter of wrongs and abuses by the benighted of the planet. But most of those who support the idea of making sure that the sole superpower accepts and embraces its "responsibilities" to the "word community" shrink from facing the full implications of exercising imperial power. It means killing, maiming and brutalizing those who get in the empire’s way, but Americans would prefer to believe that the suffering is minimal and those made to suffer are ultimately grateful for the opportunity to suffer for the sake of inevitable progress.

Timothy McVeigh participated in dehumanizing himself to the point that his death didn’t seem like a real death of a real person. But the killing still made a lot of Americans uncomfortable. In a sense, the overcoverage reflected that discomfort. The newsies sort of knew that they had to celebrate the power that this death symbolized. But they weren’t quite sure they really believed in it, so they scheduled another show to allow the proper talking heads to agonize incomprehensibly while missing the point completely.

It’s too early to tell if this means that those who run the American empire have lost faith in it at some level, even as those who ran the Soviet empire lost faith and confidence even in make-believe communism some 15 or 20 years before the empire physically collapsed. But I suspect that Joe Farah is correct that the execution of Timothy McVeigh will come back to haunt the powers that be before long. There are too many loose ends, too many inconvenient facts, too many ways for people to discover the facts the courtier press chooses to ignore.

We might not be ready to join the Munchkins in singing "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead" just yet. But the foundations – first of all the utterly essential foundation of belief – may be crumbling.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).