Missing McVeigh

The bombing that killed at least 169 people became an event by which time was thereafter measured — at least in Oklahoma. Ninety minutes after the bombing, a state trooper arrested Timothy McVeigh on a traffic charge; within hours, he was linked to the bombing, and the legal process began. Terry Nichols, who had met McVeigh when they were in the army together, was arrested in Herington, Kansas, where he lived with his wife and daughter. The Tenth Circuit chief judge designated Richard Matsch, chief judge for the District of Colorado, to preside over the case. Judge Matsch came to Oklahoma City, where he heard — and on February 20, 1996, granted — a motion to change venue to Colorado. In later hearings, he granted McVeigh and Nichols separate trials. Victims groups — to give them a name that includes survivors, families, and supporters — exerted influence on the trials and on public policy. The victims groups focused on three principal tasks: first, to plan and build a memorial in Oklahoma City; second, to lobby for changes in the law to limit appeals in capital cases; and third, to witness, influence, and provide evidence in the criminal trials and posttrial events in the McVeigh and Nichols cases (pp. 70–78). Now comes Professor Madeira’s thoughtful and timely study, Killing McVeigh: The Death Penalty and the Myth of Closure. Madeira examines the ways that victims groups came together and the goals they set for themselves. Her book is based on dozens of interviews with dozens of victims, her study of the trial record and media coverage, and a survey of literature on group memory and victim participation in trials. The book’s title is apt. Madeira exposes and dismisses the myth that killing a perpetrator gives victims any benefit that can meaningfully be called closure. She focuses, rather, on “memory work,” a term she uses over 100 times to describe words, actions, and feelings of victims. Madeira derives the idea of memory work from two distinct sources and amply documents the many sources on which she relies. First, she refers to the work of such groups as survivors of the Nazi holocaust, whose shared loss has led them to create memorial spaces and to seek redress, healing, and accountability. Second, she draws on her own and others’ work with and about crime victims, who seek to have their narratives and interests play a role in the criminal process. Killing McVeigh centers primarily on the actions, trial, and execution of Timothy McVeigh. Madeira discusses Terry Nichols and his defense team as a sort of contrast, to share victims’ reactions to, and resentment of, the fact that Nichols was acquitted of the most serious charges against him and did not receive the death penalty (p. 167). This blending helps us see the Oklahoma City survivors’ stories in a broad, empathic, and informative context. But, I shall argue, we ought also to be careful lest we assign primacy to the survivors’ narratives over those of others in and beyond the trial process. In this Review, I assess the relationship of group memory to the study of history, the presentation and distortion of memory in the trial process, and the use of group memory as an argument for retribution. I conclude with reflections on McVeigh and his death.