It'd probably be quite a stretch to have called it divine intervention. But I'd be willing to bet it's the closest I'll ever come to such a state. I had struggled for a little over a week or so with the lead on a column, this one as it so happens, on the topic of the death penalty. That's right, even the most experienced columnists, which I'm still a long ways from becoming, have to reach for their inspiration every now and then. So we'll take that most precious of commodities anywhere we can find it.

Anyway, I was sitting in the back of a local church late Sunday morning just barely concentrating. You see, I'd forgotten to turn my clocks ahead the night before and as it so often turns out, I was already running a good hour behind. As I tried to regain my composure, the deacon started into the Gospel that recounts Christ's confrontation with the religious elders who had caught a woman in adultery. Now usually I'd have tuned the whole thing out as just another sexist rant on how a woman taken in such circumstances would be the one paying the ultimate price for this deadliest of sins that, as we all know, most assuredly takes two to tangle. But that wasn't the case this particular day, as I was stopped just dead, no pun intended, in my tracks by those universally famous words ''Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.''

You know, that just might be the answer to this gravest of all our political debates in recent years. Not the part about the sin, but the stone casting reference. Since the death penalty is something our respective government, one of the few left in the free world still engaged in such a practice, does in all of our names, why not take it to the next logical step? We should, all of us, have to take a physical part in the process our elected officials keep reminding us we so desperately want.

Of course such a proposal is ludicrous, and not just because there would be so many of us, the vast majority probably who'd fail to toss a rock because we were without sin of our own. The real reason would be that when it comes right down to it, taking someone else's life is something we'd just as soon not have to watch, let alone take a hand in. That is precisely why the practice of public executions, despite what many proponents would have us believe, was dispensed with in places like England a couple of hundred years ago.

The public spectacles became such riots, with those officiating actually fearing more for their own lives, that the crown decided to take the gruesome process behind closed doors. Now it is obvious to see where I'm coming with this. I do not approve of this penalty. And I especially resent the fact that it is done in my name.

Believe me, knowing what the taking of human life feels like, it is not a memory I would wish on any individual. And explaining the act by saying it was either done in a war, in self defense or by public decree makes it no less palatable. My problem with the death penalty, aside from the fact that it's obviously prone to the most horrendous mistakes -- witness the state of Illinois in recent years -- stems more from the motives of the societies that employ it. Let's not kid ourselves, people, the driving force behind any and all executions on this planet, is pure and unadulterated VENGEANCE.

Don't tell me about what kind of deterrent it is, because I'll offer that there were few if any of the murderers sitting in death row cells any place on earth who hesitated a moment before striking because they thought about the possibility they were going to hang. Thievery was once punished in middle-ages England by death. And rather than serve as a deterrent, pickpockets used to work the crowds at public executions.

I am not saying that vengeance isn't a very human response to some of the most heinous crimes known to man. But I don't agree that it should have anything to do with the way a civilized society dispenses justice. I was working at a newspaper in Pontiac when serial killer John Wayne Gacy was put to death. I recall that the entire event was surrounded by no small amount of hoopla. There were any number of celebrants on hand to usher the reputed killer of 30-plus young men and boys to the other side. On the 16th of this month, the United States will strap one Timothy McVeigh to a hospital gurney not unlike the one that Gacy laid down on for the last time. And my government will, in mine and everybody else's name in this country, pump a fatal cocktail of chemicals into his vein in the name of justice.

For the senseless murder of 168 people in a haze of paranoid delusions and a rage of misguided political loyalties, McVeigh, who unfortunately will go to his grave believing himself a martyr to a much higher cause, will be killed in all our names. But I can't help thinking that when McVeigh's body loses its last ounce of living warmth, we won't have proved in the end that at least some of those delusions of his about a murderous government conspiracy to subjugate the freedom loving, well armed patriots of America, weren't without some shred of truth. Unfortunately, I'm very afraid that his death won't be the last. How many other Timothy McVeighs are there out there to point at his martyrdom as a call to more senseless acts? Because, no matter what we call the individuals strapped to the table so that we can live with the act -- ''fetuses,'' ''Cong,'' ''Gooks,'' ''Commies,'' ''Muslim fanatics,'' ''conspiratorial governments,'' and yes, even ''GUILTY'' -- 169 wrongs will never make one right.

And just what's the difference between the revenge we extract through an intravenous tube and the Ryder truck McVeigh chose? Our motives, sadly, are strikingly similar.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online May 9, 2001

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