Archbishop Paul S. Coakley
Like most Americans old enough to remember April 19, 1995, I recall the moment when I learned of the devastating blast that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It was the worst act of terrorism ever committed on U.S. soil up to that time, claiming the lives of 168 innocent men, women and children, plus the lives of several unborn children killed in their mothers’ wombs. In truth, those numbers hardly begin to tell the whole story of those affected that terrible day. The rest of the story would tell of the survivors who were injured and those who walked away, the first responders, the families, the members of the media, clergy and counselors, and so many others who were touched and changed forever that day.
I was living in Kansas at that time. And, like people all over the world who followed the story, I was profoundly moved by the way this community responded to such unspeakable violence and evil. Those tragic days brought out the best in this community and its people. A remarkable spirit of kindness, hospitality and care for one another and for strangers was on display before the world. That spirit of solidarity has come to be known as the Oklahoma Standard. It was a light shining in darkness.
That terrible event brought this community to its knees, literally and figuratively. We could have been destroyed by it. Instead, building on the foundations of deep religious faith, an indomitable spirit, and strong leadership, this community has risen from the ashes to experience a remarkable rebirth and become the kind of city that would have been difficult to imagine 20 years ago.
This 20th anniversary of the bombing invites us to remember reverently those who lost their lives that day, and renew our support for those families and friends who still grieve their losses.
It invites us to renew our appreciation for those who are always ready to stand in the breach with those who experience hardship and suffering during emergencies and crises of whatever sort. We have a beautiful world-class memorial and museum to help keep memory alive and to hand on the lessons learned from those dark days 20 years ago.
The healing continues. I am so proud to be a part of this community today, even as I so admired it from afar 20 years ago.
What will the next five, 10 or 20 years bring? My hope and prayer for our community is rooted, at least in part, in an experience that has left me unsettled for the past 18 years. As a parish priest in Wichita, I brought our youth group here to Frontier City for a summer outing in June 1997. It was the very day that the jury returned its verdict in the penalty phase of the trial of convicted bomber, Timothy McVeigh.
As the public address system at the theme park interrupted its soundtrack to broadcast the decision live, a reverent silence fell over the crowded park. It was a silence filled with a tangible sense of the pain and loss this city had endured. I shared in that moment of anticipation.
I don’t know what I expected, but I was not prepared for what followed the announcement that McVeigh had been sentenced to death.
From a reverent silence in which you could hear a pin drop there erupted an outburst of enthusiastic applause. Perhaps it was a cathartic moment, and nothing more. But it was deeply disturbing. Certainly this man deserved a just sentence for his terrible crime. But, all too often what is unleashed in such situations is not the cry for justice, but rather a call for vengeance. It’s a fine and dangerous line. Justice is ennobling. The demand for vengeance diminishes all of us. Violence begets more violence.
That experience helped shape my own convictions on the difficult question of the death penalty. I am firmly opposed to it. I pray that our community, our state and our nation will come to recognize that today the use of the death penalty is no longer necessary or justifiable.
There is a better way. While the death penalty may be legitimate in principle, it is hard to find circumstances today when it is legitimate to apply that principle. When there are non-lethal means to protect society and exact due punishment for serious crimes we ought to pursue these means.
We have just come through the sacred Paschal Triduum. In the Cross we have God’s response to sin and injustice. The Cross achieves the perfect balance of justice and mercy. God suffers with us. He takes the pain of our sin on himself by sending his Son to die for us. In his death and resurrection we share in his victory. Thus, the cycle of sin and death is broken and we are redeemed.
Enough of violence! Let mercy season justice. As Pope Francis said in his first Angelus address after his election, “A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just. We need to understand properly this mercy of God, this merciful Father, who is so patient.”
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