REVENGE AND THE SPECTACULAR EXECUTION: THE TIMOTHY MCVEIGH CASE

Date01 July 2004
DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1016/S1059-4337(04)33006-1
Pages201-221
Publication Date01 July 2004
AuthorJinee Lokaneeta
REVENGE AND THE SPECTACULAR
EXECUTION: THE TIMOTHY
MCVEIGH CASE
Jinee Lokaneeta
ABSTRACT
This paper argues that contemporary executions by lethal injection represent
spectacles of death. This spectacle of death upholds the sovereignty of the
liberal state by evoking a sense of fear among the citizens. The State uses the
apparently “painless” and “humane” form of execution by lethal injection
to legitimize the death penalty in the U.S. I take the example of McVeigh’s
execution to suggest that spectacles of execution continue in modern society,
along with disciplinary processes that the liberal state depends on for its
legitimacy. This paper, thus, aims to contribute towards a rethinking of a
Foucauldian notion of power.
The execution of Timothy McVeigh on June 11, 2001 represents a unique moment
in the history of executions in American society. Capital punishment has been a
source of much debate and discussion in the U.S. McVeigh’s execution marked a
perfect opportunity for Europe and the rest of the world to point a finger towards
the U.S. and to argue against the continuation of the “barbaric practice” of the
death penalty in the most advanced capitalist nation of the world. In fact United
States is the only western democracy still using capital punishment1(Zimring &
Hawkins, quoted in Gross, 1993, p. 85).
Studies in Law, Politics, and Society
Studies in Law, Politics, and Society,Volume 33, 201–221
Copyright © 2004 by Elsevier Ltd.
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1059-4337/doi:10.1016/S1059-4337(04)33006-1
201
202 JINEE LOKANEETA
This paper argues that, apart from its international significance, McVeigh’s
execution represents a spectacle of death. It will further argue that this particular
spectacle is “necessary” to the present moment of American politics. It is my
contention that this spectacle of death is required to uphold the sovereignty of
the liberal state in order to evoke a sense of fear among the citizens. In addition,
the State uses so-called apparently “painless” and “humane” form of execution
by lethal injection to legitimize the continuation of the death penalty in the
U.S. In this paper, I will use the example of McVeigh’s execution to suggest
that spectacles of execution continue in modern society, along with disciplinary
processes that the liberal state depends on for its legitimacy. This paper thus aims
to contribute towards a rethinking of a Foucauldian notion of power.
THE UNIQUENESS OF THE MCVEIGH EXECUTION
The Oklahoma bombing was one of the worst cases of domestic terrorism in recent
American history. A hundred and sixty-eight people were killed and 500 injured in
a bomb blast in the Alfred P.Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April
19, 1995. The state officials initially suspected Islamic and other international
terrorists for the bombing, until it was known that Timothy McVeigh a “home
grown” terrorist (along with Terry Nichols and possibly others) had attacked the
American government – the “great Satan” in McVeigh’s own words (Linedecker,
2001).2McVeigh was sentenced to death and, after a delay caused by a FBI mix
up in May 2001, he was finally executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001.
There were several reasons why McVeigh’s execution was a significant
one. Timothy McVeigh’s execution was the first federal execution in 38 years.
Executions had been discontinued in the U.S. by the end of the1960s. In the
mid-1960s, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund had exposed the
racially biased and arbitrary nature of executions and this led to a moratorium
on executions that culminated in the 1972 Furman v. Georgia case. However,
there was soon a backlash from political leaders, police and the citizens due to
increasing crime rates and several states began reintroducing the death penalty
in the 1970s. In the 1976 Gregg v. Georgia case, the Supreme Court held that
death penalty was constitutional (Gross, 1993, pp. 84–85). Further, it is not a
coincidence that Post Gregg in 1977, lethal injection became the adopted method
of imposing the death penalty in the United States. The apparently “humane”
nature of the method made the renewal of death penalty more palatable to the
American people. The act of renewal of executions is significant considering that
approximately 108 countries had stopped using the death penalty as a method of
punishment in the post World War II period (James, 2001).

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