Twenty years ago today, I walked out of the Loews Copley Place Cinema in Boston, Massachusetts after an early-morning showing of the mildly-funny Chris Farley-David Spade movie Tommy Boy. I put on my AM/FM Walkman and turned to WBZ-AM, the city’s all-news station—and what I heard seared my soul.
A bomb had gone off at a federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, ultimately killing 168 people. Nobody knew why. Nobody knew who. Nobody knew what to think.
I always thought the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was a one-off, a fluke, a rare example of post-Pearl Harbor terrorism on our soil. I never thought it would happen again. I never thought it would happen so soon.
Later that afternoon, I turned my radio to WRKO-AM, the prominent talk-radio station. The host, Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr, and the callers were convinced that it was the work of militant Muslims—“towelheads,” as Carr called the supposed suspects. One caller suggested that it may be time for the internment of American Muslims, similar to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. I was sick to my stomach.
Eventually, Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols were charged with the bombing; both men were tried and convicted in 1997, and McVeigh was put to death in 2001. I remember being relieved by McVeigh’s execution; I’ve gone back and forth on the morality of the death penalty over the years, before coming to the conclusion that if there is clearly no dispute about the guilt of the accused, then I’m not troubled by the idea of putting a convicted murderer to death. If there’s even a one percent chance that the convicted person didn’t actually do it, leave him or her alive.
As you know, earlier this month, another radical anti-government terrorist, Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev, was convicted of his crimes in federal court in Boston. Since Tsarnaev’s conviction, there has been much debate about whether he should be put to death. As was the case with McVeigh, I’m not terribly troubled by the idea of him being executed.
I believe the death penalty should be used extremely sparingly in this country; I am convinced that Cameron Todd Willingham and Troy Davis were innocent, and that their unwarranted deaths were the result of a death penalty culture run amok in the United States. However, I’m also convinced that there are certain crimes so abhorrent, and certain criminals so undisputably guilty, that the death penalty is in fact warranted.
I will feel a sense of relief if and when Dzokhar Tsarnaev is put to death, the same sense of relief I felt fourteen years ago when Tim McVeigh was executed. Putting someone to death is grim business, tough business, harsh business. However, in extremely limited cases, it is necessary business.
April 19, 1995. April 15, 2013. Two dark days, eighteen years apart. Take a moment to remember the murder of innocent hearts.
UPDATE: From PBS Newshour, April 16, 2015.