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The BBC's Robin Aitken
interviews Dr John R Smith the psychiatrist appointed by the court to examine Timothy McVeigh
 real 56k

Saturday, 12 May, 2001, 11:13 GMT 12:13 UK
Trying to explain McVeigh
The Oklahoma federal building
McVeigh has admitted carrying out the 1995 bombing
By Robin Aitken in Oklahoma City

The Reverend Richard Lunsford is, in his own words, a rare bird.

This Southern Baptist minister leads his flock at the Crossroads church in Oklahoma City. The area is sometimes called "the crossroads of America" - it is somewhere near the country's geographical centre.

Timothy McVeigh
McVeigh says he acted alone; others are not sure
It is also "heartland America" - that semi-mythical repository of American values and aspirations.

Not natural territory, then, for a rebel. But Richard Lunsford is challenging the orthodoxy here. He believes the death penalty is profoundly un-Christian, and that sets him apart in a church that enthusiastically endorses execution.

80% of Americans think McVeigh should die

The Rev Lunsford says his stand has made him an object of suspicion. Other ministers, he said, have advised him to "go back to your liberal friends".

At the end of the service I attended, a smartly dressed elderly woman came up to me and whispered, "I like Richard but I don't agree with him."

And indeed Oklahoma hardly seems fertile ground for those who would like an end to executions. The state's execution rate is the highest per head in America - 11 people so far this year.

Americans united

Perhaps that is understandable given what Timothy McVeigh did here in 1995 when he bombed the Federal Building downtown killing 168 people.

His act has persuaded even some long-standing opponents of the death penalty to change sides. People like civil rights lawyer Norman Gissell, who has devoted much of his life to combating race-hate groups.

Fireman Chris Fields carries the body of one year old Baylee Almon
Nineteen children were among the dead
I met him in Idaho, in what was formerly the headquarters of the Aryan Nations organisation until he dispossessed them. His fear is that in executing McVeigh the Federal Government will make him a martyr, particularly for the racist right and other extremist groupings - though he thinks McVeigh's crime is so heinous that he has limited propaganda value.

That seems to be borne out by recent opinion polls which suggest that 80% of Americans think McVeigh should die. To Mr Gissell, hitherto against execution, McVeigh has forfeited his humanity.

A few miles away I went to the home of the Rev Richard Butler, formerly the master of the Aryan Nations compound. In his modest house we sat and talked while his dog, an Alsatian called "Nazi", nuzzled his hand - and occasionally mine too. The Reverend Butler, whose church is The Church of Jesus Christ Christian, believes the US Government is determined to exterminate the white race.

Though McVeigh had no contact with the Aryan Nations group Mr Butler is keen to claim his as one of their own. McVeigh, he told me, was a "volk hero of our race" and a "good soldier who gave his life". As I left, interview over, Mr Butler who is in his 80s, gave me a Nazi salute from his chair.

McVeigh's motivation?

So far none of what I had heard went far towards explaining the enigma of McVeigh himself. But back in Oklahoma City I interviewed the psychiatrist appointed by the court to examine McVeigh. Dr John R Smith is in his late 60s; a deeply humane man who has examined many murder defendants.

Timothy McVeigh in soldier's uniform
McVeigh: May have suffered post-traumatic stress
His version of the real McVeigh was unexpected: An agreeable young man to meet, with good social skills. Dr Smith believes McVeigh was motivated partly by a childhood hatred of bullies.

McVeigh believed the Federal Government had become a bully because of what happened at Waco, Texas. There, an assault by federal agents on an obscure cult, the Branch Davidians, left about 80 people, including 20 children, dead. McVeigh had also served with the US Army in the Gulf War where he fought and killed some Iraqis. That experience, Dr Smith said, could have left him with mild post-traumatic stress disorder.

One further thing Dr Smith told me: Tim - as he called him throughout - was not a racist. He believes McVeigh wanted to be known as a young man who struck a blow for freedom. He also says that to understand is not to condone.

And finally in Waco itself I met someone whose name will ring a distant bell only in the middle-aged and older - Ramsey Clark, the US attorney general under President Lyndon Johnson. Under his tenure the death penalty was briefly ruled unconstitutional. For three years no executions took place until the ruling was overturned.

Mr Clark - now in his 70s - had travelled to Waco for the annual memorial service held to commemorate those who died. He believes the federal agents who attacked the church committed a terrible wrong - and he says that action created a terrible rage in McVeigh. Furthermore he believes that in executing McVeigh the US will be perpetuating a cycle of violence.

Not a very comforting thought for those pondering Timothy McVeigh's legacy.

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See also:

12 Apr 01 | Americas
Victims to view McVeigh execution
12 Apr 01 | Americas
Live from death row
11 Apr 01 | Sci/Tech
Legal battle for live execution
16 Jan 01 | Americas
Oklahoma bomber to die in May
11 Feb 01 | Americas
Bomber wants public execution
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