Albion Monitor /Commentary

The McVeighTrial Sham

by Russell Sadler

What makes a man, not yet 30, decide his society is so corrupt that he is justified in taking the law into his own hands and indiscriminately killing 168 people to make a political statement of his outrage? More to the point, why are Americans taking it so calmly?
(AR) ASHLAND, Ore. -- A federal jury took less than two days of deliberation to find Timothy McVeigh guilty of bombing the Oklahoma City federal building. the unanswered question remains. What drove McVeigh to kill 168 people? The stock answers so far are unconvincing.

It was the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil in the history of the country. It ws far worse than any single act of violence that ever occurred in modern Ireland, and was bad as any in the Middle East. The Right Wing is trying to justify it and romanticize it. McVeigh was disturbed by law enforcement agencies at Waco and Ruby Ridge. The Left Wing is trying to heal the victims and understand the terrorist. McVeigh was a victim of parental abuse.

What makes a man, not yet 30, decide his society is so corrupt that he is justified in taking the law into his own hands and indiscriminately killing 168 people to make a political statement of his outrage? More to the point, why are Americans taking it so calmly? The American mood over the Oklahoma City bombing is much like a natural disaster -- heal the victims, demolish the building and with it, the memories -- and the lessons.

American was not always this calm about political agitators. In 1919 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Charles Shenck, the General Secretary of the Socialist Party for circulating a leaflet urging Americans to resist the draft. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote his famous opinion in this case saying that speech should be a "clear and present danger" to society before it lost the protection of the First Amendment and became a crime.

But Holmes though Shenck's leaflet was a clear and present danger to a nation at war with a foreign power. The court unanimously upheld Schenck's conviction. It would be decades before Holmes' "clear and present danger" doctrine was adopted by the court's majority.

The court's decisions to protect public speech steadily became more broad until the Brandenburg case in Ohio in 1969. Clarence Brandenburg, a Ku Klux Klansman, was convicted in Ohio courts of anti-government speech. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Ohio courts, saying seditious speech actually had to incite immediate violence before it could become a crime.

We know what Timothy McVeigh had been reading. The stuff was in his car when he was arrested running from the bombing. "The Turner Diaries" were among the books and pamphlets. This little potboiler celebrates a race war that begins when black people employed by the federal government come for the guns owned by people in the western United States. Those who resist call themselves The Organization.

"The Turner Diaries" is a fictional account of one man's life in the white resistance. The Timothy McVeigh's of this world are acting out chapters of this book -- a federal building is truck bombed, for example -- much like children act out what they see on tv. And no one seems concerned. Is it political maturity or spineless resignation? Instead of dealing with this growing problem of discontent and alienation in our society, we are treated to the mawkish sensationalism of the "sentencing" trial.

If you have the impression criminal trials have become more sensational in recent years you are not wrong. Part of the reason is television coverage. Part of the problem is celebrities on trial like O.J. Simpson. Part of the problem is the shameless descent of corporate journalism into the muddy mire of tabloid publishing in relentless pursuit of revenue. But the real reason for swollen sensationalism is the so-called "victims' rights" movement.

Until recently the courts held a clear distinction between civil and criminal court cases. Civil cases were a contest between two parties -- usually someone who was allegedly negligent and someone who was their alleged victim. Lawyers shamelessly competed with each other to sway the jury and attract sympathy for their clients. The courts let lawyers get away with this emotionalism because only money was at stake.

Criminal trials, on the other hand, were not treated as a crime against the victim, but a crime against society. O.J. Simpson's civil trial was labeled Simpson vs. Brown. Simpson's criminal trial was labeled Simpson vs. California. It is an important difference.

A defendant with his life at stake, whether a celebrity like O.J. Simpson or a pimply-faced nobody like Timothy McVeigh, is entitled to substantial protection by the Constitution. Rules of evidence ensure that only the most reliable and firsthand testimony is admissible, and that prejudicial material designed to appeal to the jury's emotions rather than reason is screened out. Experts are certified and cross-examined. Sentencing is designed to deliver society's punishment, rather than administer revenge for the victim or victim's survivors. No more.

The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed testimony from victims and survivors in criminal sentencing trials for the last decade or two -- during the same period criminal trials have become more sensational. The media is taking full advantage of the maudlin testimony the courts now allow in criminal cases.

Judge Richard Matsch is clearly an old fashioned, no-nonsense judge. Matsch labeled the new sensationalism for what it is -- a lynching -- and he has put curbs on sensational testimony from both sides to prevent a lynch mob atmosphere in his courtroom.

But even this rare show of judicial self-restraint is failing to stop the two-bit pop psychology so prevalent in the increasingly mawkish, sensational courtroom world where taxpayers finance public therapy and administer revenge for victims of crime who publicly wallow in self-pity and are apparently unable or unwilling to get on with their lives.

Could, then, the answer to an unasked question be that Timothy McVeigh is simply an anti-social psychopath who was tacitly given permission to kill 168 people by irresponsible authors of Right Wing fantasy novels and militia literature -- and that steps should be taken to hold those participants accountable, too? Should we send people to take their guns?

Russell Sadler is a syndicated columnist who teaches journalism and environmental studies at Southern Oregon University in Ashland

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Albion Monitor July 6, 1997 (

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