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What Would Jesus Do?
An Open Letter to President Bush

Paul Corrigan

13 May 2001

President George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Bush:

On the campaign trail you stated that Jesus Christ is your favorite philosopher. Please ask yourself this question: What would Jesus do with Timothy McVeigh?

Pope John Paul II has called upon you to commute McVeigh's sentence. The Pope received a terse response from Vice President Cheney. Earl Butz might have found the Vice President's response amusing. I did not. Your conscience should speak loudly to you when your closest advisors find it easier to quickly dismiss the request of the Pope than to give thoughtful consideration to commuting the sentence of one man.

It is contrary to the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" for the United States government to put McVeigh to death. Man playing God instituted the death penalty. Our cinematic history has glorified the ideal of murderers repenting their sins just before execution. The idea that McVeigh's pending execution will, finally, lead to his repentance (he has been unrepentant to date) and salvation falsely deifies those who would execute him.

Imposition of the death penalty is extraordinarily rare. Less than one in 100 murders results in the death penalty. Killing McVeigh is selective and arbitrary. It has been over 30 years since the federal government has executed an inmate. Executing McVeigh is the deliberate taking of life. It is not self-defense. It is not preventative. It is revenge for a past act. The government, like McVeigh, would justify killing in response to killing. Both actions are morally confused.

McVeigh makes no effort to claim innocence or seek commutation. In fact, he has asked that his execution be made public. Commuting McVeigh's death sentence to life in prison would be an act of mercy and an example that all of us should temper our instincts for revenge, even for the most heinous offenses.

This week, the FBI revealed that it had withheld data from McVeigh's defense team. In response to the disclosure, The Washington Post quoted an FBI official as saying, "there's nothing intentional here." Such statements are of little comfort: have you followed the FBI's actions in the Whitey Bulger case? If evidence was withheld in a case of this stature by the FBI , then I can only imagine the potentially exculpatory evidence that never finds its way to the defense teams of defendants in capital murder cases across the nation.

Advocates of the death penalty cite a number of justifications for killing McVeigh: retribution, rehabilitation of the victims' families, preventing McVeigh from killing again, deterring other would-be mass-murderers, an escalated punishment for a specifically heinous crime, and cost savings. Commutation of the death sentence to life in prison would also serve all of these motives. Where is the moral imperative that McVeigh must be executed?

Advocates of McVeigh's execution believe opponents to his execution are contemptuous of the suffering of the victims. I do not believe this is true. There are also members of the victim's families that do not seek the "closure" of the death penalty. The death penalty puts victim's families into a holding pattern of grief, waiting for a peace that cannot come from the killing of another. Imagine if the time and money spent on execution were spent instead in an expression of compassion for the victims' loved ones.

Commuting McVeigh's sentence to life in prison will do more to defend democracy and justice in the United States than executing him will. When the Pharisees used the law of Moses to call for the stoning to death of an adulterer, Jesus responded: "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone." [John 8:7] Despite knowledge of the New Testament, will you wash your hands of your role in the execution of McVeigh? To do so is to act with the cowardice of Pontius Pilate.

Eighty percent of the American public support executing McVeigh. It will take a leader with courage to commute McVeigh's death sentence to life in prison.

President Bush, what would Jesus do?


Paul Corrigan (paul@bear-left.com)

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