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McVeigh Execution Stirs Death Penalty Debate - 2001-06-11

For many Americans, the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh Monday closes one of the saddest chapters in U.S. history. McVeigh's 1995 attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people and is the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. But his execution is the first of a federal prisoner in 38 years and is sure to intensify the national debate over capital punishment.

Paul Howell sees merit in the death penalty. His daughter Karen died in the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. He was one of 10 victim witnesses who watched Timothy McVeigh put to death. "As far as I am concerned, I'm feeling pretty good about it right now because I know this man will never go in here and hurt us again, in any form or fashion," Mr. Howell said.

Death penalty supporters believe there is no better symbol of the necessity of capital punishment than the remorseless mass murderer Timothy McVeigh. Bob Jordan was passing though Terre Haute on his way to Ohio the other day, when he found himself getting angry as he watched an anti-death penalty march go by. "It's beyond me, you know," he said. "I say, this fellow has got it coming. Let him have it."

A local printer, David Norris, even boasted that he would like a shot at McVeigh himself. "I would like to get about 10 minutes with him myself. I mean, you know. And I am pretty mean," Mr. Norris said.

But death penalty opponents see an opportunity in the McVeigh case. They argue that sanctity of human life is so important, that even so hated a figure as Timothy McVeigh should have been allowed to live. And they believe the mass media attention to his execution will help mobilize the many Americans who believe the penalty should be outlawed.

In the early morning darkness, before McVeigh's execution, a young man from Indianapolis named Joseph tried to explain his opposition to the death penalty. "Tim McVeigh is a lost sheep," he said. "But the other ones who are out here who just want to see him dead, you know, thinking that they are going to get some peace and closure from his death, through his death. No. The next day they will be thinking about, 'Man, I'm still mad at him'. So I am just out here trying to let them know they need to forgive."

Among the scores of journalists who covered the execution was Alesandra Farkas who works for one of Italy's largest newspapers. She says she often has difficulty trying to explain why a majority of Americans support capital punishment. "I think this is the case that is basically going to oblige America to see the evil within itself," she said. "And I think that is why it is difficult for America to accept what is going on. Because it is a big, big self-analysis going on here."

Terre Haute Indiana, with its geographically central location, has long billed itself the crossroads of America. This week, with the execution of Timothy McVeigh and the ensuing debate over capital punishment, Terre Haute became a crossroads of a different kind.