Timothy McVeigh parked in front of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, got out of the rental truck he was driving and walked away–leaving a scene he knew would be devastating in a matter of a few minutes when the explosives packed in the truck detonated.
The Oklahoma City Bombing, as that crime will always be known, took the lives of 169 adults and children, permanently injured dozens of others and scarred the lives of thousands. Timothy McVeigh was arrested, tried, found guilty and executed. Terry Nichols, who helped plan the crime, is serving a life sentence in a federal prison.
I was the United States Marshal for Colorado during the trials in the cases of US v McVeigh and US v Nichols and that trial process is the most memorable activity of my law enforcement career for many reasons. Some of those can be the subjects of future posts. In this one, I want to share a perspective that was reinforced for me repeatedly: The traits we admire in a moral and ethical person–confidence, determination, bravery, willingness to take a stand for what is right–all become negative, vicious and despicable when they come from an arrogant, hateful heart and mind.
I was reminded of Tim McVeigh as I was reading poetry this week and saw the classic Invictus, by William Ernest Henley, a 19th century British poet. The title is Latin for Unconquered, and the poem is often read at funerals–particularly for those who led a life of strong resolution.
Timothy McVeigh quoted Invictus to me on several occasions and, I understand, he quoted parts of it before his execution. He thought the concept fit him: He did what he believed was right and just, and he was willing to pay the price if he was caught. Some people who supported him then and now think of him as a hero. I think of him as a self-centered, arrogant young man who didn’t care how many other people paid the price with him. He could have been much more, because he was intelligent, witty and personable in many of his conversations. But, he threw his future away along with the futures of others, to feed his ego–not his ethics.
When I talk with someone who prides himself on his strength of character, I consider the results of his actions and the positive effect he has on others. If he has consistently displayed morality and ethics combined with caring and compassion, I can admire him and will be influenced by him. If all he does is hate, complain, judge, argue, criticize and view him and his few friends as better than everyone else, I can’t find a reason to admire him–and I won’t listen to him. Sadly, some of those people, like a Tim McVeigh, could be a tremendously positive force in the lives of others. But, they choose to be filled with venom. Wise people avoid them to avoid being poisoned by the contact.
I often include a thought in my leadership and supervisory training: Work harder at having character than being one. That is a great goal for all of us. One way to show strength of character is to look at our lives humbly and acknowledge our imperfections–it will remind us that we have very little reason to feel arrogant and superior and many reasons to empathize with others. It may also help us purge hate from our lives, so there is more room for goodness and clear thinking. That is the foundation of strength of character.