The New York Times
Sunday, 14 May, 2001
By Jeff Goodell
When Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people and injuring more than 500, Patrick Reeder lost his wife of 15 years, Michelle, as well as his mother-in-law, Ann Kreymborg. It took rescuers 15 days to dig their bodies out of the rubble. For the next several years, Reeder often thought about what he would do to McVeigh if he ever got the chance. Crushing his larynx was just one of many fantasies he played out in his head. For Reeder, it was a question of technique, not of morality. An Oklahoma-born conservative Republican and a longtime N.R.A. member, Reeder had been a supporter of the death penalty all his life. So had his wife.
"I felt like I owed it to Michelle to make sure McVeigh died for his crime," Reeder says.
"If I could have killed him myself, I would have."
About a year after the bombing, Reeder read a newspaper story about a man named Bud Welch, who had lost his 23-year-old daughter in the explosion. Welch had told a reporter that he was not looking forward to McVeigh's execution, that he was, in fact, against it.
"I thought, What a fool," says Reeder, who at that point had never met Welch. "I wasn't going to grab a gun and hunt him down, but I was pretty angry at him. He wanted to show mercy to the man who killed my wife."
By the summer of 1996, Reeder had lost 40 pounds and was so unhealthy-looking that his family insisted he go to the doctor, who immediately checked him into a hospital. The day Reeder arrived -- Aug. 16, 1996, which would have been his and Michelle's 16th wedding anniversary -- his heart stopped twice. The second time, he needed resuscitation. A few days later, a therapist suggested that he was trying to kill himself.
"That kind of woke me up," he confesses.
Upon leaving the hospital, he began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where, for the first time, he talked openly about his wife's death and his anger toward McVeigh.
He also immersed himself in a number of grief-recovery and theological texts, including "The Varieties of Religious Experience," by William James.
"I wanted to know if I was going nuts," he says. He began to think about what justice really means and how deeply he felt about forgiveness.
Although Reeder was moved by the deep pain that many other survivors and family members were feeling, he was increasingly disturbed by the blood lust he saw in a number of them.
As far as Reeder knew, his entire family, as well as his wife's family, supported the death penalty for McVeigh -- as do the vast majority of Oklahomans, where capital punishment has always been popular.
According to a recent poll, 75 percent of Oklahomans favor the death penalty for murder. For the last two years, Oklahoma has led the country in per-capita executions.
Earlier this year, the state executed eight people in a 23-day period.
Support for the death penalty is so unyielding that in 1999, after Pope John Paul II spoke out against capital punishment, Gov. Frank Keating, a Catholic, challenged the divine word by saying that the pope was "wrong" to speak for all Catholics on this issue.
Reeder understood that to oppose the execution meant not only alienating friends and family who, like him, were deeply damaged by McVeigh. It meant challenging the bedrock values of the place he lives. It meant having his love of his wife questioned. It meant cold looks at the bank, anonymous phone calls, further isolation. He wasn't sure he had the emotional strength for it.
One place Reeder, who is Catholic, might have turned was his church. Last July, Eusebius Beltran, the archbishop of Oklahoma City, issued a statement calling for a moratorium on the death penalty in Oklahoma. Many Catholic priests in Oklahoma City regularly preach against the death penalty, as do a number of Methodist, Unitarian, Presbyterian and Episcopalian church leaders.
They stand in marked contrast to many Southern Baptists, who make up the state's largest percentage of churchgoers. As Keith Henley, the pastor of the Trinity Baptist Church in El Reno, an Oklahoma City suburb, put it during a recent conference on the death penalty,
"It is our moral duty to execute Timothy McVeigh."
Although Reeder attends church regularly, he never looked to the church for guidance.
"This was a personal journey," he says.
As late as last year, a friend he coaches football with asked, "Is it rough for you, being a Catholic, supporting the execution?"
And Reeder replied breezily: "No, it's not rough. I want him to die."
At least, that's what he told friends. Inside, his doubts continued to grow.
Reeder couldn't help catching Bud Welch on TV every once in a while. By now, Welch had become a full-time crusader against the death penalty, arguing in speeches around the country that the people who quote Scripture to justify capital punishment in America are the same people who were against abolishing slavery and against extending voting rights to women. But it wasn't Welch's rhetoric that moved Reeder.
"Here was a man who had suffered at least as much as I had -- everyone says that losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to you," Reeder says.
"And yet, he was still able to find it in his heart to ask for mercy for McVeigh. Why couldn't I?"
Still, the majority of Reeder's family and friends remain steadfast in their support for McVeigh's death, as do many family members and survivors. Reeder is also bothered by McVeigh's lack of remorse but argues that executing him allows us to avoid confronting our own complex feelings about justice and forgiveness.
"A lot of people just want McVeigh eliminated from their lives," Reeder argues. "I understand that, because I felt that way myself. I wanted him silenced. But I also wanted my own conscience silenced."
©2001 The New York Times
Not long ago, Reeder stumbled over a poem , and it became his credo:
THE MAN IN THE GLASS
When you get what you want in your
struggle for self,
And the world makes you king for a day,
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself,
And see what that man has to say.
For it isn't your father or mother or wife
Whose judgment upon you must pass.
The fellow whose verdict counts most in
Is the one staring back from the glass.
Jesus warned that We Will Be Persecuted
If we Follow His Gospel of Love and Forgiveness
McVEIGH MUST DIE
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