If I were Tim McVeigh . . .

by Arthur Hoppe

Given the same circumstances, I think I could have done what Tim McVeigh did. Whenever a major crime hits the headlines, I try to put myself in the evildoer's place to see if I could have done the same.

I find I wouldn't be able to slit a man's throat, shoot up a Burger King, rape a woman or molest a child. But I might be able to rob a 7-Eleven, burn down a building or even send bombs through the mail. I could do these things, of course, only if I had the mind set of the criminal involved.

We've had but the briefest hints of what makes Tim McVeigh tick. Such is even the shortage of film, that for months the networks have shown us the same shot of McVeigh being led away in handcuffs. Yet from these scraps of information we try to piece together who the man is.

I see him as a not-very-bright soldier imbued with a John Wayne complex. He drinks beer, fights in bars and has nowhere to go in life. Burdened with his lack of success -- and perhaps even the absence of hope -- he needs someone to blame. Thus he turns to that hobgoblin of little minds: a conspiracy.

There is nothing little about the conspiracy he invents: It's the entire federal government, particularly those agents he believes responsible for the slaughter at Waco. He will take revenge.

Now his dull, purposeless life becomes exciting. He plots and conspires. He boasts to admiring accomplices of the deed he will do. He rents the truck, he fills it with explosives, he plans his getaway. He will be a John Wayne hero.

I doubt he really thought about the human beings those explosives would kill. He is said to have believed the explosion would set off a revolution that would overthrow the government. This pipe dream is obviously the creation of a paranoid soul who must justify the high adventure he has embarked on.

But all the galvanizing planning comes to fruition. Now he is parked in front of the federal building in his explosive-laden truck, just as he bragged he would be. He's not going to kill 168 people. He's merely going to set a fuse and run away. And he'll do so in the noble cause of saving his fellow Americans from their government.

I know I would have found this far easier than slitting another man's throat. It's human nature. The reluctance we feel in killing our fellow human beings is in inverse ratio to the distance they are from us.

In World War II, it was an atrocity to shoot an unarmed civilian and even worse to bayonet a woman or child. But it was perfectly permissible, even heroic, to blow them up. I know that if I had been in a B-24 flying 10,000 feet over Dresden, I'd have had no compunction against releasing the fire bombs that took thousands of lives.

Nor would I think of those people I was killing. I would think instead of whether I was on target and whether I would escape the scene -- much like McVeigh.

All this is not in defense of McVeigh. I find him a stupid, unlikable, unfit human being, and I have no question that he is guilty of his heinous crime.

I don't see, however, what good killing him would do. I would have preferred he had been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Perhaps, then, psychiatrists could study him like a laboratory specimen to see what made him do what he did. I think they'd find that this mass murderer is much like you and me.

Reprinted with permission from the San Francisco Chronicle.