Sadly, McVeigh is a typical American in many respects

Charley Reese

April 10, 2001

Some people have professed to be shocked that Timothy McVeigh referred to the deaths of the children in the day-care center in the federal building at Oklahoma City as "collateral damage."

Why in heaven"s name does that shock anyone? Timothy McVeigh did not invent that phrase. He was a soldier, and the American government always refers to civilian casualties as "collateral damage."

It is much more than an Orwellian euphemism to describe the deaths of innocent human beings. It is meant to close the topic, to stop the conversation, to dismiss the lost lives as not worthy of any further discussion. They are, after all, merely "collateral damage." And one does not assume moral responsibility for "collateral damage."

I have visited with McVeigh"s mother and seen pictures of McVeigh as a boy and as a young soldier. He is, whether we wish to admit it or not, a typical American in many respects. He has absorbed the lessons of modern America.

What are those lessons?

First and foremost, that violence is an acceptable way to settle a dispute. Look how many times the American government has resorted to violence -- in Lebanon, in Libya, in Panama, in Grenada, in Somalia, in Iraq, in Sudan, in Afghanistan, in Yugoslavia. And in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho. In every single instance, the deaths of innocent people were dismissed as "collateral damage."

Yet in all those instances, Americans did not profess to be shocked, nor did they refer in hushed, horrified tones to the callousness of the government. In most cases, they cheered the violence. They, too, dismissed the dead children, the dead mothers, the dead fathers as "collateral damage." The U. S. government has killed a million times more civilians than Tim McVeigh, its decorated soldier. And soon it will kill him.

People who are selectively horrified, depending on who the victim is, are, in fact, amoral people. The children in the federal building were no different than the children in Iraq, Yugoslavia or in the West Bank and Gaza. Nothing stings a Palestinian more than to see the American press give prominent attention to the death of a Jewish child while routinely ignoring the deaths of Palestinian children. They are all equal in their preciousness and innocence. It is racist to attach more importance to the death of one than to the death of the other.

Many Americans, while they may not wish to admit it, see themselves when they look at McVeigh. Oh, they don"t have the nerve to act out their malice as he did, but they are always eager to advocate violence; they, too, have cockamamie opinions based on propaganda; they, too, think that not all lives are equal and that some can be sacrificed for political reasons.

Some are already saying what "we should do to the Chinese" if they won"t release the crew on the Navy spy plane that landed on Hainan Island. Well, there is an ugly fact that Americans had better remember before their blow-hard pseudo patriotism goes beyond rhetoric. Those American crew members are in China, under the control of the Chinese government, and whether they will be released is entirely up to the Chinese government. Unless you wish to consider their lives as "collateral damage," I would suggest that diplomacy rather than bluster and threats is the better course of action.

The pilot, by the way, should not have delivered an American intelligence aircraft to the Chinese. He should have -- Navy folks tell me -- used his 60 miles to head toward the nearest American or friendly ship and ditched the plane. The crew did, however, dump some of the machines and destroy the codes before landing, the Navy says.

At any rate, we are creating our own Frankenstein monsters, and McVeigh isn"t the only one by a long shot. A society that sends a message to its children that violence is the way to settle disputes, that might makes right and that not all lives are equal in value should not play the hypocrite when its sons and daughters learn their lessons well.

For once, I"d like to see the entertainment industry, which also teaches that violence is the way to solve problems, condemned for being the perverse purveyor of pornography that it is. For once, I"d like to see the American government actually play the peacemaker instead of the bully. For once, I"d like to see Americans grieve for the deaths of all children whatever their race, ethnicity or religion. For once, I"d like to see people realize that military action or other government force is the last resort, not the first option, and only then in defense of innocent life.

McVeigh in one sense is also a victim. The deaths he caused were useless, and his own death will be useless. No one will have served any useful or worthwhile purpose; certainly not him but just as surely not the government, either. Just pain and grief. We seem to produce both as mindlessly as Hollywood produces trash.

Reach Charley Reese at 407-420-5315 or creese@orlandosentinel. com

Copyright 2001, Orlando Sentinel

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