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Terrorism and the Death Penalty

The execution of Timothy McVeigh at Terre Haute, Indiana on June 11 of this year raised the pitch of death-penalty debate by a qualitative notch. It signified the resumption of Federal executions after a hiatus of nearly forty years. White, intelligent, and a terrorist, Mr. McVeigh made the ideal condemned man, for the bulk of arguments commonly deployed against the American criminal justice system generally and its death penalty in particular did not apply in his case. Because of the enormity of the offense - blowing up a Federal office building at a time of day when the explosion was sure to take lives - McVeigh's trial was closely scrutinized by the press, and there was never any question about the adequacy of his legal representation. As a result, only two arguments could be raised against putting him to death. The less powerful of these concerned the fear that McVeigh's execution might be held up as a martyrdom by others who share his political views. For most opponents, however, it sufficed to insist that the death penalty is absolutely immoral; that it is always and wrong for 'society' to take a life. While I agree that the death penalty is in most cases unwarranted and unjustifiable, I believe that it is the correct, arguably necessary, sanction for a terrorist. 

It will be conceded that terrorism, unlike other crimes, takes aim primarily against society, not individuals. is a crime primarily against society, not individuals. It will also be granted that 'society' consists of everyone living within a given political boundary who subscribes (however passively) to the ethnic conventions prevailing therein. As a rule, conventions cannot do their work in violent settings, and acts of terrorism have as their objective the disruption of social stability, whether by fear or catastrophe. By inflicting violent damage, terrorists hope either to punish society or to win concessions from its rulers. As such, terrorism is not political in nature. Whatever its political objectives, it resorts to the violence that, again as a rule, societies reserve to military and constabulary forces.  

When we look back at the political assassinations and other activities that plagued Japan, Germany, and Russia - to name only three leading sites - during the 20th Century, it's clear that all Japanese, all Germans, and all Russians were the victims, not just the unfortunates who got shot. Under Stalin, terrorism became government's principal force, but was none the less antisocial for that. Given the international repercussions of Fascism and Stalinism, it's not fatuous to claim that everyone on earth was their victim. To the extent that their aftershocks have still not entirely subsided, we still are victimized, if only by the persistence of habits of mind developed in response to terrorism. The intransigence of American conservatives vis--vis Russia, for example, is a legacy of determined resistance to Bolshevism, widely perceived from the time of its origins as a terrorist, or at least neo-Jacobin, movement. 

All crimes, of course, do violence to society, but for the most part that violence is only locally intense and its effects are quickly diffused. In the United States, many people die each year in the course of thefts, rapes, and domestic disputes; a vastly fewer number are killed in the pursuit of retribution. But years and even decades can go by without anyone's dying, in a given state or city, as the result of activity that is focused upon the disruption of social stability. Such an objective could hardly be further from nearly all criminals' minds. 

It may be useful at this point to explore, for contrast,  a social problem that from time to time throws off quasi-terroristic sparks. In the all too wide margin of society that's buffeted by the sale of illegal narcotics and by the countervailing 'war on drugs,' the conventions of everyday life are frequently challenged by violence, ranging from 'gangland' executions to police harassment based upon racial profiling. Upon examination, however, these incidents, however disruptive, have nothing fundamental in common with acts of terrorism. Participants in the drug trade do not contemplate the overthrow of the American way of life; it's even unlikely that they seek the decriminalization of narcotics,  for that would put an end to most of their profits. Nor would it be fair to say, even after the Louima and Diallo disasters, that police terrorize civilians. Although the war on drugs is a largely senseless and obstinately unimaginative conflict,  those who are arrayed against government forces are in many respects anti-terrorists, no less upholders of the status quo than law-enforcement agents or judges. It is transparently clear to all but the most fanatic prohibitionists that people buy drugs to fill, if inadequately and destructively, a rent in the social fabric that would almost certainly be more effectively dealt without the cops and robbers garnish. Similar analysis applies to organized crime. 

 if the guns would be put away. I do not mean to suggest that , and largely abstract. The impact is collateral, and the crime should be judged like any failing. We would all be living in Utopia if it weren't for our failings, but our failings can't be called antisocial. It's only when the act against a state is uncompounded with any other motive that terrorism arises. Or terrorism. 

Terrorism is a version of war, and just as the soldiers engaged in battle against a sovereign state can well expect to lose their lives in consequence, so should terrorists. In many cases they not only expect it but anticipate it, from kamikaze pilots in the Pacific to holy warriors in Israel, transforming themselves into martyrs even as they inflict damage on the enemy.   

The blackmail victim who passes on state secrets is not really a traitor. The corner-store hold-up artist who kills a clerk, for all the 

There are innumerable ways to frighten and demoralize a society, but for the purposes of this essay I define terrorism as criminal action that both contemplates and achieves the loss of life. For reasons that needn't be argued here, I also regard the liability for terrorism as non-vicarious. No matter how many persons are involved in a terrorist plot, only those who pressed buttons, pulled triggers, or ignited fuses can be charged with capital crime.

Second, the crime of terrorism does not lie where the victims are active military agents - soldiers on campaign. I am not sure that I regard the explosion of two barracks, one in Lebanon, one in Saudi Arabia, as acts of terrorism, but as I expect that most people would, I insert this qualification. off duty soldiers who are not currently engaged in belligerent or defensive warfare are functional civilians.

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