Sunday, August 5, 2012

None Dare Call It Closure

The thing about a criminal case is that it's about the harm done to the body politic.  That's why the cases are called things like City of ____________ or State of __________ or United States of America v. __________________.
I understand why the victims of criminal acts hate that.  They think, and prosecutors encourage the thinking, that they're central players.  It's they who were wronged, yet the trials aren't about them.
I understand it, but it's wrong.  Oh, those folks may have been wronged, but they aren't actually the victims of the crime.  The body politic is.  (Didn't I just say that?)
The victims of criminal acts have a legal remedy against those who wronged them, but it's in civil, not criminal law.  Because they aren't (and here you'll perhaps see why I've been fairly careful with my language) victims of crime; they're victims of criminal acts.  More precisely (maybe I haven't been as careful as I should have been), they're victims of criminals.
Regardless of the terms, the remedy for the individuals harmed is in a lawsuit against the person responsible.  The remedy isn't mostly very satisfying (most criminals are judgment proof, and in any event cash isn't a particularly good salve for much of the harm that people cause each other.  Still, that's our system.
Or at least that's the theory.
The thing is that it's a theory nobody but a few law professors, the odd judge, and the criminal defense bar (and maybe the clients of the criminal defense bar) likes.
So it is that over the last 15 or 20 years the criminal justice system has been . . . well, I'd say corrupted or infected or even taken over, though others would say improved or maybe corrected
or slightly modified by individual victims of criminal acts.
  • Because, they say, they should have a voice.
  • Because they're the victims of crime.
  • Because they need to heal.
The last of those things is true, of course.  But the criminal justice system isn't the way.  Even modified.
All of that is by way of introduction to Jody Lyneé Madeira's new book, Killing McVeigh: The Death Penalty and the Myth of Closure.  (Thanks to NYU Press for sending me a copy.)
Madeira, an associate professor at Indiana University's law school, interviewed, at length, 33 people who either survived the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995 or who had relatives among the 168 people who died.  She wanted to trace what happened to them, not physically, but psychologically and socially, culturally.
Did the trial bring them closure? The death sentence? The execution itself?  Really, does one ever get over that sort of trauma? How? And what does it mean to get over it? What is closure, anyway?
Closure, she says, is not the politician's (or the prosecutor's) hype.
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."
It's not an event and it's not the end.  It doesn't happen, it continues.
For the folks she interviewed, and presumably for everyone affected by the trauma of criminal acts (and maybe by any sort of trauma), it is
"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. 
And so Madeira takes us along with her subjects chronologically- from McVeigh's arrest to after his execution.  She introduces us to her subjects and tells their stories, really, she lets them tell it, quoting extensively.  But she's not telling us what they did (though there's a bit of that). Rather, it's how they felt.
Seeing McVeigh in the courtroom at his trial.  Seeing his eyes in the execution chamber.  Hearing his voice in a televised documentary.
It won't surprise anyone who reads this blog regularly to be told that I'm not much of a believer in absolutes.  There are the things I believe, of course.  But what is true of the law is true of life.  The  answer to nearly every interesting question is "It depends."
And so, it turns out, is the experience of surviving or losing a family member to the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building.  
It turned some people into anti-death penalty activists.  It made others believers in the death penalty. Some came to forgive McVeigh. Others did not.
McVeigh's eyes communicated much during his execution.  
They showed him defiant ("I've seen it a lot in my grandchildren.  You know that kind of defiance of 'you can whip me if you want to but it's not hurting'"), malicious ('eat shit and die"), arrogant ("fuck you all, I won").  And they showed him altogether unemotional ("nothing"), comfortable ("you're not hurting me"), and fearful ("I'm not in control of this. As much as I've criticized the government, the government has me.") 
Which pretty much suggests that McVeigh's eyes didn't communicate a thing.  The witnesses, those who saw his eyes, found in them different things.  But what the found was in themselves, not in McVeigh.  The interactive process wasn't really interactive because they had no interaction with McVeigh.  It was all with themselves, and what they imagined of McVeigh.
Many of Madeira's subjects took the bombing personally.  He did this to me.  He wanted to make us hurt more. He kept trying to cause us pain. But it seems clear that McVeigh didn't have any thoughts about the particulars of who would die.
Blow up the building.  Kill a bunch of people.  Who they were didn't much matter.  
There was, ultimately, nothing personal about it.
Except to the survivors and the families of the victims.
And, in the long run, to Madeira.
For her, it's a good thing that the criminal justice system has been, in part at least, remade to accommodate these victims and others.  They need to do their "memory work," and trials and sentences help them do it.  She makes passing reference to the tensions between the effort to provide for the emotional needs of individual victims of criminal acts and the constitutional rights of the criminally accused.  But for her, as for those she writes about, it's clear that the individual victims are the needy ones.
Maybe that's easy in the case of these folks.  There really wasn't much question that McVeigh was factually guilty regardless of the roles of others, known and possibly unknown. But the McVeigh case was, at the time, pretty much sui generis.  But Congress and the courts went some toward remaking the criminal justice system as a consequence of the bombing (and, as Madeira relates, at the instigation of some of its victims).  The result isn't particularly satisfying to those victims.  (No matter how much you fiddle it, the criminal justice system just doesn't lend itself into psychotherapy for victims of criminal acts.) Yet it does serious harm to the constitutional rights of the criminally accused.  
Madeira mostly acknowledges that the system, even tweaked, doesn't lend itself particularly well to aiding individual victims.  She doesn't much address the harm caused to the accused.  That's understandable.  This isn't McVeigh's story, it's the story of the bombing's victims (some of them, anyway).  And Madeira places herself firmly in their camp.
Killing McVeigh is a useful corrective to the simple-minded claims of victimolophiles and prosecutors and politicians that all we need is maximum punishments and executions and victims will be, miraculously, healed.  It doesn't work that way.
Indeed, the final need of most of her subjects, the thing that will let them not get over what happened but move on from it, isn't McVeigh's death.  It's his silence.
As frequently as she talks about "memory work," Madeira refers to McVeigh's "toxic presence."  It's about him.  He's in the news.  He's publishing an autobiography.  The trial was about his guilt, more than their suffering.  Damn.
That's the media, of course, but it's also the legal system.  Want to lose track of the guy, make him go away?  Sentence him to life and then ignore him.  Otherwise, whenever there's a new filing a new issue a new round - and that happens nowhere more than in death cases - it's the criminal who's on the front page.  Even the execution is about him.
Or you can give him life.  And let him pretty much fade away.  it's an option Madeira doesn't explore.
Put its shortcomings aside, though.  Killing McVeigh is a compassionate account of the real needs of the individual victims of criminal acts and of how, at least in this one instance, they mostly came to terms with what happened to them.
They were changed by the bombing, of course.  But they came together, joined in common interests, found that they were not alone as they struggled with their emotional responses, changing though they were.  Ultimately, though, the government couldn't heal them.  The courts couldn't heal them. The execution couldn't heal them.
All those things had some value for some of them, less - even negative value - for others. But through interaction and response and attending to each other, they come to terms with, they accept what happened, they get on with the rest.
In a few cases, they seem even to heal.  Maybe Bud Welch did when he went to Buffalo to share his humanity and his loss with Bill McVeigh.  But lost his daughter, Julie.  Bill lost his son, Tim. Maybe Priscilla Salyers watching the execution.
I am still not looking at him, and he kind of raised up, and I think was glaring into the camera, and all of sudden it's like, you know because I have this faith. . . . all of sudden he came to me. . . . I started to think of him as Timothy McVeigh, the soul, and not Timothy McVeigh, the man, and I started praying for him that this is his last chance, this is his last breath, and I prayed for him and it just like overtook me. . . . I was able to let it go,  guess to me that was the true forgiveness, not "Oh yeah, Timothy, you could be my best buddy" -- type forgiveness.  So it's forgiveness in different stages. . . . To me this was a true forgiveness, letting it go.


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