Novelist Vidal to watch McVeigh die
May 5, 2001 11:41 AM   Subscribe

Novelist Vidal to watch McVeigh die McVeigh “put his reason (for the bombing) upon a sense of justice,” Vidal said. “This guy’s got a case — you don’t send the FBI in to kill women and children,” he said, a reference to the government’s deadly raid on the Davidians’ complex at Waco. Vidal said, however, he wants people to know how horrified he is by the bombing. The author said he told McVeigh in a letter that if the bomber had blown up FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., “at midnight when no one was in it, ‘you’d be a national hero.’”
posted by matteo (24 comments total)
I don't know about national hero, but it would have been really amusing.
posted by frenetic at 12:39 PM on May 5, 2001

I've seen this story printed in varied form -- with the part about wanting people to know how horrified he is/was by the bombing left out, for starters. Of course, Gore surely knew that his quotes would be taken out context, screwed around with for editing purposes, etc. He's kept up that "controversial" label, that's for sure.

Don't exactly agree with how Gore went about this, nor his idea that one person's decision to destroy property (without people in it) is considered acceptable. Oh, wait, there may have been more to that statement too.

In any case, I don't see people handling the moral complexity he's talking about very well. I've seen no evidence that any random group of Americans, no matter how well educated or au courant, could carry on a rational conversation about major crimes. I can't imagine how Americans would respond to In Cold Blood if it were published today. Then again, the inability to handle the moral complexity of writing that masterwork left Truman Capote a train wreck of a human being, so maybe it's never been easy. Now, you just have a zillion media cliches that are stored in your brain to work through.
posted by raysmj at 12:41 PM on May 5, 2001

raysmj, Capote was pretty fucked up way before he published In Cold Blood
(PS We don't need that kind of book anymore, now we have Natural Born Killers and Marilyn Manson...)
posted by matteo at 12:59 PM on May 5, 2001

Don't exactly agree with how Gore went about this, nor his idea that one person's decision to destroy property (without people in it) is considered acceptable.

When your nation's mission statement is built upon asserting the justness of armed rebellion against a tyrannical state, you're in a sense inviting people to take it at face value and act upon it, however horrific the consequences. I think it's that emphasis on the subjective will of the people which interests Gore Vidal; and that the moral line between heroic rebellion and cold-blooded mass murder can be a blurred one, at least in the minds of those who take the decision to act. (And that's certainly the complexity that's missing in pieces comparing McVeigh to the Freepers.)

How does one remain true to the glorious example of the founding fathers, and act when it "becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another"? (Or, to revisit your point, to rob the King of his property...) After all, logic dictates that every revolution begins with one person brave (or insane) enough to say "enough is enough". But history is retrospective, written by the winners, in which the triumphant cults and ideologies seem to emerge as naturally as the sun at dawn. There are many false messiahs, but it takes a certain something to bet upon the right one, to take the frontline in the just and proper revolution.

Is there that much of a moral gulf between McVeigh and George Washington? Well, yes, but to think about their motivation is likely to give you a nasty feeling in the gut.
posted by holgate at 1:05 PM on May 5, 2001

Yes, he was pretty messed up all the time, though able to talk to average people from Kansas well enough. He just grew *extremely* messed up after finishing off the book.
posted by raysmj at 1:08 PM on May 5, 2001

holgate: Excellent post. The "collective action" bit is what made me wonder about the Vidal statement concerning blowing up the FBI building whilst vacated (which I believe may be oversimplified). He was quoted as saying that if McVeigh had done the latter, he'd be a national hero of sorts. That's not collective action of any sort, that's individual action, and impossible to defend.

In any case, our nation is not built upon Rousseau's concept of the subjective "general will." That's France, holgate! Holgate, really. There was a whole list of wrongdoings listed on the mission statement referred to, by the way, and it was signed by members of a representative body. That its leaders failed to work out how to go about change in case that representation became tyrannical is entirely another question, one that leads in part directly to the Civil War, but they absolutely didn't think that *one* person would be able to take care of the matter. (You're asking to get into a whole obscure discussion of the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, which I don't have time for, to be honest.)
posted by raysmj at 1:22 PM on May 5, 2001

When your nation's mission statement is built upon asserting the justness of armed rebellion against a tyrannical state, you're in a sense inviting people to take it at face value and act upon it, however horrific the consequences.

holgate, the revolution happened well over 200 years ago. The UK has long since given up considering America a rogue state, and as far as I know, none of the other European countries is clinging to a "one England" foreign policy. Besides, we're never coming back because, frankly, your food sucks, and y'all are so damned uppity. It's time for you to let go and move on. Maybe you can convince your government to reprise that whole Falklands thing.
posted by anapestic at 1:52 PM on May 5, 2001

anapestic: missed my point entirely.

Look, you're not France, where there have been enough rewrites of the constitution and imperial interludes to render the principles of 1789 historical curiosities. In fact, when you get the Supreme Court citing 17th century English common law in their most recent judgement to decide the Founding Fathers' intent when talking of "unreasonable searches and seizures", you pretty much know that the US is singing from a songsheet that hasn't been amended too much since the late 18th century.

And that revolutionary spirit -- the empowerment of the individual to act against perceived state oppression and rewrite the social contract -- in Jefferson's re-reading of John Locke, still runs through your country like "Blackpool" through a stick of rock. (Why else does Eric Raymond quote Paine, Jefferson, Franklin, Blackstone et al on the right to bear arms in his .sig files?)

As for "letting go and moving on": well, we tend to think that Pitt the Younger was a great Prime Minister, but we don't let his policies dictate those of the present day. Pot, you're calling the bloody kettle.
posted by holgate at 2:07 PM on May 5, 2001

matteo, you posted 3 links in one day. give it a rest. I emailed you, but you chose to ignore it.
posted by owillis at 2:27 PM on May 5, 2001

The "revolutionary spirit" was not about the power of the individual to act against an oppressive state, it was about the power of "the people" to act against the suppression of individual rights. Not once in the "mission statement" called the Declaration of Independence does Jefferson specifically refer to this right of the individual to, say, blow up the FBI building, even with no people in it. The right to bear arms was also related to collective action. Someone has mentioned this fact here before, but I believe the idea was have a citizen's militia exactly of the sort Switzerland has (or at least is reported to have -- I didn't say so). But of course no such militia never developed in the US.

Jefferson, by the way, said much of what you've already said in re to being too reverent of the past. You can even be too reverent about his statement regarding reverence, only not when in a conversation with people who are fundamentalists regarding 18th century documents.

Could it possibly be that American came to cherish individual rights more over time? Surely nothing in American history shows that we appreciated individual rights as much as we should have until Brown v. Board and a host of other Supreme Court decisions in the 20th Century. Could there be other cultural influences besides the nation's founding document(s) at work here? Is there more an evolution or devolution of ideological notions over time? Or least more influences thrown into the stew (a bit of Ayn Rand or Noam Chomsky here, a bit of Dirty Harry or "Traffic" or something there, etc.)?
posted by raysmj at 2:46 PM on May 5, 2001

the above is addressed to holgate, for for the record.
posted by raysmj at 2:47 PM on May 5, 2001

holgate: You also know the current ideological makeup of the Supreme Court, and that the vote on the decision you cited was 5-4 regardless. That by no means constitutes a singing from any one page.
posted by raysmj at 2:59 PM on May 5, 2001

see, now if mcveigh was made to eat the victims of his crime...

oh nevermind. black humour is out of fashion this season.
posted by jcterminal at 3:10 PM on May 5, 2001

holgate: just one more, swear it. Your post also left out the fact that the Supreme Court ruling you cited reinforced the state's ability to arrest and jail citizens on misdemeanors, no matter what the extenuating circumstances. That was hardly a reinforcing of individual rights, and thus less than germane to your argument. If it was informed by the 18th Century, it was an 18th Century of community rights and not individual rights. I heard Sandra Day O'Connor say in speech at the Univ. of Alabama that if the 20th Century was the century of individual rights, the 21st Century will focus more on community. *And she dissented in the case you cited*.
posted by raysmj at 3:34 PM on May 5, 2001

There's an interesting tension, I think, in the Lockean texts upon which Jefferson draws much of his principles, in that they fundamentally individuate action and motivation (I'm thinking here of the Essay) while treating the decision to form and re-form the "common-wealth" (Two Treatises) as a "collective" decision. (There's certainly no "revolution of one" in Locke.) What's intriguing, though, is how you get from the one to the other.

After all, "collective acts" carry a different status to individual acts, or even the simultaneous acts of several individuals: how else can a democracy act? But that simply marks out the particular political system as a kind of calculus which derives "collective" authority from individual acts. Which came first: the "will of the people", or the individual "willing" of the people? (It's not as simple as you'd think; in the case of the US, it took the "will of the people" in the Constitution to stipulate the political status of the individual. And quite honestly, I think its the clearest political statement of that "popular will".) But if an authoratitive "collective act" is a derivative of the currently-enforced system, then how do you set yourself apart from it?

I think you're right that what's happened is that the tension between the two, resolved in the late 18th century in terms of the "channelling" of individual influences to the collective good, develops into the Randian reading that individual motivation is for the collective good, which suggests that Rand ought to have spent more time reading Adam Smith. (Here's hoping that Justice O'Connor is right.)

And as for the 5-4 decision: well, both sides draw different conclusions from their reading of 17/18th-c English common law. Neither side neglects the writing on the hymnsheet: they just argue about the pronunciation. (And I'll point you to Alistair Cooke for his typically excellent historical reflection on that judgement. Though you'll most likely have to wait until Tuesday for his most recent talk to go online, alas. It's about Krushchev's comments on the 5-4 majority.)

And yes, I admit to being staggered that the majority decision cites 18th-century English common law in the assumption that the Founding Fathers accepted the status quo from which they were escaping.
posted by holgate at 3:51 PM on May 5, 2001

I can't imagine how Americans would respond to In Cold Blood if it were published today.

Robert Blake appears to be working on a remake.
posted by rcade at 6:35 PM on May 5, 2001

One of the more peculiar coincidences re Cold Blood: in the book, the favorite movie of the character played by Robert Blake was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which featured a very young actor named . . . Robert Blake.
Meaningless, but there it is.
posted by lileks at 8:05 PM on May 5, 2001

Oh, some victims' family members are said to have "decried" the Vidal invite, according to the Washington Post. The story's about more than just Vidal, and interesting regardless.
posted by raysmj at 8:55 PM on May 5, 2001

raysmj is incred-ably close (and well spoken too) "The flames kindled on the 4th of july, 1776 have spread to much over the world to be extinguished by the febble engines of despotism" Thom.Jefferson. That is pretty accurate from memory, from Burns 'Jefferson' (Was gore in that?)read the AMENDMENT to the Constitution. It roughly states that one or we need a milita to defend our selves against a despotic government and GUNS are needed to have said milita so one can shoot that despot. Gore will get his book or story and donate the funds to jimmy angleton or something. I love this post, lets try and keep the constitution out of it.(wow, locke, smith, were is hobbes and Danton) ok..the point is..jefferson would bitch slap gore and timmy the stick would still go to the wall.
posted by clavdivs at 9:41 PM on May 5, 2001

From today's Observer, a letter from McVeigh to a namesake at the paper:

"When an aggressor force continually launches attacks from a particular base of operations, it is sound military strategy to take the fight to the enemy. Additionally, borrowing a page from US foreign policy, I decided to send a message to a government that was becoming increasingly hostile, by bombing a government building and the government employees within that building who represent that government. Bombing the Murrah federal building was morally and strategically equivalent to the US hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq, or other nations.

"Based on observations of the policies of my own government, I viewed this action as an acceptable option.

"From this perspective, what occurred in Oklahoma City was no different than what Americans rain on the heads of others all the time, and subsequently, my mindset was and is one of clinical detachment. (The bombing of the Murrah building was not personal, no more than when Air Force, Army, Navy or Marine personnel bomb or launch cruise missiles against government installations and their personnel). I hope that this clarification amply addresses all questions."

From that, it's plain to see that McVeigh regarded his own anger as sufficient justification for an act that he believed to carry the authority of a "collective" response. "There will be many false messiahs...."
posted by holgate at 4:25 AM on May 6, 2001

Funny, he might actually have a point about the moral equivalence of his act and that of bombing innocent civilians in other countries...
posted by lagado at 5:53 AM on May 6, 2001

He may have a point about the moral equivalence, but he is unable to reconcile that with his own sense of 'justice.' Given a few years to think it over, McVeigh has been able to create a neat, tidy justification for his acts when in reality he went for an easy target that failed miserably in all ways he claims to have wished to succeeded. Now he is able to call it an "acceptable option" when in reality he was full of anger and starved of ideas.

We, too are guilty of McVeigh's 'clinical detachment' when talking about his acts, but in this forum it's really the only way we can rationally discuss what his actions mean, meant, and will mean to future confused Americans fighting tyranny, either real or imagined, or both.
posted by FPN at 6:23 AM on May 6, 2001

Not that it helps to think of "equivalence" when comparing morally abhorrant acts. Below zero, we all freeze.

And it seems that there's nothing like seeing state-sponsored warfare at first hand (McVeigh famously patrolled the "Road of Death" in Iraq) to send you to the mountains with a crate of guns.
posted by holgate at 6:25 AM on May 6, 2001

Maybe I missed something, but I think that Truman Capote and Gore Vidal are two different people. Right?
posted by mecran01 at 6:28 AM on May 8, 2001

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