Timothy McVeigh and the Myth of Closure

The families of his victims were allowed to watch him die, but in the years that passed, many were left without a sense of finality. A new book follows these people, searching for an answer to a powerful question: When does a tragedy end? 


Shari Sawyer, right, wipes a tear as she leans on the shoulder of her husband, Jay, after witnessing the execution of Timothy McVeigh. (AP)


Eleven years ago today-- on June 11, 2001-- Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed by lethal injection at the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana. He died with his eyes open, it was reported, staring up at the closed-circuit camera that was beaming his execution back to Oklahoma. Four years earlier, almost to the day, a federal jury in Denver, Colorado, had sentenced him to death for the murder of 168 people, killed in a truck bomb blast at the Alfred P. Murrah federal building on April 19, 1995.

When the death sentence was revealed on June 13, 1997, The Denver Post reported at the time, there was little of the public cheering that had accompanied the jury's first verdict. Then, there had been a measure of jubilation on the streets outside the courthouse in downtown Denver. This time, on Friday the 13th, there was mostly just a sense of relief. "I'm glad it's complete," juror David Gilger said. "I hope it brings a sense of closure to everyone."

Closure. To many it is just another "made-up word. A politician's word," a word that has proven, unsurprisingly, to be wholly inadequate to describe the range of emotions, often raw and conflicting, of any particular person's grieving process. Then again, many others evidently still swear by it. Search "'victims' rights' and closure" on Google and it comes back with 1,770,000 results.

Closure is acceptance of the unacceptable. Closure is perspective.

No surprise. Fifteen years ago, especially, the word had great political relevance. The concept of "victims' rights" was just then broadening its impact upon the criminal justice system, fueled by a United States Supreme Court decision styled Payne v. Tennessee. The 1991 ruling, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, held that a capital defendant had no Eighth Amendment right to be free from a sentencing trial which included "victim impact" statements.

After Payne came O.J. And then after that came McVeigh. It was in the name of justice, and closure, that the thousands of victims of the Oklahoma City bombing exerted remarkable political power to achieve their goals. The biggest example of their success was the swift, bipartisan passage of the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, an extraordinary statute that has influenced hundreds of murder cases -- and much of our legal war on terrorism -- ever since.

The new law guaranteed that McVeigh (and every other subsequent capital defendant) would get fewer appeal rights. And for the first time ever it opened up federal courtrooms to closed-circuit off-site viewing so that victims of the bombing could watch the trial at home in Oklahoma. Whether McVeigh's victims were seeking justice or closure or something far different from his trial, they had at least fought for the right to see it with their own eyes.


Out of this curious history comes Killing McVeigh: The Death Penalty and the Myth of Closure, a timely new book by Indiana University School of Law associate professor Jody Lynee Madeira. In it, Madeira asks a question most of us have asked at one time or another in our lives: "What is closure? Does it exist? If so, where and for whom. If not, why?" She then tries to answer those questions, often laboriously, using the bombing trial survivors as her control group. Here's her main takeaway:

Closure as I have come to see it is a phenomenon that is entirely unlike the rudimentary concept currently bandied about in popular culture. It is so radically different that we gut the concept in its entirety in order to redefine it, keeping only the semantic framework that points us to certain contexts in which we can appropriately apply the term (emphasis in original).

I take it that by "semantic framework," she means the seven letters that make up the word "closure." The word is a code, a totem, purposely left ambiguous to permit it to be interpreted differently depending upon the person, the victim, who is contemplating both its scope and its limitations. Madeira next tells us what her vision of closure is not. She writes:

First, closure is most affirmatively not what contemporary culture says it is -- absolute finality, in the sense of such colloquial phrases as "over and done with," "dealt with," "put behind one's self," "let bygones be bygones," "forgive and forget." Closure is not a state of being, a quality, or even a realization. If closure exists at all, it must be as a process, a recursive series of adjustments that a self makes in response to external, often institutional developments.

This "process" of closure, she writes, at least in the context of the Oklahoma City bombing:

is actually "memory work"-- an interactive process by which individual family members and survivors construct meaningful narratives of the bombing, its impact on their lives, and how they have dealt with, adjusted to, or healed from this event.

The goal, she writes further, is a level of personal emotional control:

At some point in our constant procession through response and readjustment, we come to a state of awareness that can conclude an event in our lives. This point marks are awareness of an ongoing stasis and is an ending of sorts, even if it is not a "happy" one, even if sorrow, anger, trauma persist. From this perspective, one's ability to state that there is no closure is itself a closure.

Got that? Closure is acceptance of the unacceptable. Closure is perspective. Closure promises nothing and guarantees even less. And it means so many different things in so many different contexts that it is not hard to argue that the word itself, at least, means nothing at all. People deal with their grief. They deal with sudden death. They deal with the awful effects of violent crime and mass murder. Some deal "better" than others. And some deal not at all. Whatever all of this pain and contemplation ought to be called, all of its was plainly evident from the comments made to Madeira by the bombing trial victims.


Paradoxically, Madeira's book works best when it focuses less upon the concept of closure and more upon the raw information provided to her by the bombing victims. Their perceptions about McVeigh -- and just as importantly, how those perceptions have changed since his trial in 1997 and execution in 2001 -- are welcome additions to the scholarship about the bombing trial and its impact upon American legal history. And if the book did nothing more than that, it would be worth the read.

We learn how offended victims were by McVeigh's presence in court -- and also how their perceptions of his bombing conspirator, Terry Nichols, were affected by the latter's family history. We learn about the emotions the victims felt between the date of McVeigh's death sentence and his execution -- a period of only four years because McVeigh, ironically, chose not to prolong his appeals. And we learn how the subsequent 10 years, and especially the events of September 11, 2001, have affected these poor people.

The details Madeira offers through her interviews remind us of how unwieldy even a carefully controlled federal trial can be -- and how limited is the legal response, the official response, to mass murder or terrorism. McVeigh's guilt. McVeigh's conviction. McVeigh's execution. None of it brought back the victims of his crime. None of it erased the terror of what he wrought that day. No wonder so many of the bombing victims remained so unsatisfied for so long. There is real anger in these pages -- and sometimes it pops right up.

But the book is far from flawless. For example, by emphasizing the concerns, priorities, and agendas of the victims, it necessarily undervalued the vital significance of the competing interests that crop up in criminal cases. Trial judges don't exist to make sure that victims' rights trump the fair trial rights of capital defendants. Federal law doesn't guarantee that victims won't be offended or annoyed by the presence of defendants at their criminal trials. The Constitution doesn't promise closure or anything remotely like it.

The truth is that the Oklahoma City bombing victims were not unlike other groups of individuals forced to share a common and tragic history. Some of the victims were angry, arrogant people who were often unforgiving about the scriptures of trial law. Others were stoic figures who rarely expressed in public the seething pain they must have felt inside. Some were people you easily could imagine being your friend. Some were people you hoped you would never hear from again.

Just as the word "closure" cannot be given a single understanding, the bombing victims, as a whole, represented both more and less than the sum of their parts. They were, as we've seen, a remarkably cohesive political force. And they were also completely overshadowed by the events of 9/11. On that day, more people whose last names started with just the letter "S" (255) died than by McVeigh's hand in Oklahoma City. I look forward, years from now, to a similar book about how the victims of September 11, 2001, each differently coped with their own concepts of grief and closure.


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Bill McVeigh, the father of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, scratches his head as a news station reports on his son's pending execution on Wednesday, June 6, 2001. (AP)

Whatever we want to call it, if the concept of "closure" were truly a myth, we would not be able to witness so many brilliant examples of it in our lives or in the lives of those people we know to whom tragedy has come. I can't define "closure"-- and neither, evidently, can anyone else. But as Justice Potter Stewart once wrote, "I know it when I see it." From Killing McVeigh:

One of the most spectacular participant experiences with perpetrators' family members arose out of media interview with McVeigh's father. Bud Welch [the father of bombing victim Julie Welch] was struck by a television interview with Bill McVeigh [the bomber's father] about a year after the bombing in which he was "physically stooped in grief"; Welch explained, "He had a deep pain in his eye that I recognized immediately because I was living that same pain at that same moment," Then and there, he said, "I knew that someday I needed to go tell that man that I truly cared how he felt and did not blame him or his family for what his son had done.

Welch and McVeigh met in September 1998 in upstate New York, Madiera tells us, and "the two men spent the first half hour of the visit literally finding common ground in Bill McVeigh's garden." Inside the house:

One particular photo of Tim soon caught Welch's attention, and his gaze was repeatedly drawn to that image. He eventually realized that he had to say something about why he was drawn to the picture. "Finally, I just said, 'God, what a good looking kid," Welch recalled. His comment was greeted by silence; finally, Bill McVeigh looked at him and said, "That's Timothy's high school graduation picture." At that moment, Welch related, "There was this big tear that rolled out of right eye, down his cheek. And I could see at that moment that this father could cry for his son."

Reflecting back upon this meeting, Welch said: "I think what happened that Saturday morning in western New York is that I found a bigger victim of the Oklahoma City bombing than myself." While Welch has had numerous opportunities to talk about [his daughter, Julie, killed at the Murrah federal building on April 19, 1995], he emphasized, "Bill doesn't have a chance to ever say anything positive about Tim."

What happened inside the kitchen of Bill McVeigh's house that September day is how and why tortured people achieve a measure of peace from the torment in their lives. For them, nothing ever closes. And nothing ever will.