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"Street Talk" Polls the Academics: What Do You Make of Timothy McVeigh's 'Last Words'?

Week of June 20, 2001


Vivian Pollak
English Professor, Washington University
"I guess I'm glad he found comfort in poetry, but I didn't like the way the press handled it. One newspaper essentially said that this poem is something that an adolescent rebelling against a father would quote, as if to say this shows how crazy he is, and I just felt like it was the only touch of humanity he showed. This is a poem about trusting one's self, and there are a lot of 19th-century English and American poems like that, Dickinson's and Whitman's among them. There's a tradition of self-reliance and radical individualism that poem reflects."

Bruce Umbaugh
Philosophy Professor, Webster University
"It's kind of interesting that he couldn't think enough for himself to write his own last words. He seems to have been very much in the thrall of other people's ways of thinking."

Lucinda Kriete
Postdoctoral English Instructor,
Washington University

"I think it is sickly ironic for him to speak of being the captain of his soul and the master of his fate when he robbed so many other people of control over their lives."

Belden C. Lane
Theology Professor, St. Louis University
"That evening, our prayer group had a meeting. We lit candles, and we asked what happens in the last moment of one's life and you come face to face with God. And as I imagine Timothy McVeigh before God, at that culminating moment, with the combination of recognition of his acts of terror and of immense regret, and also of being loved in a way he never knew possible -- could his attitude have shifted from the pride of 'Invictus' to the humility of knowing that none of us are masters of our own fates? That was my prayer that night."

Patricia Brooke
Assistant English Professor, Fontbonne College
"I actually liked it that he used a poem. The victims' families didn't like it at all. They found it very unsatisfactory. They wanted him to cry, seem remorseful, but instead he turned to literature as a way to express his feelings and, in a very real way, control the terms of his death, which made him seem more inhuman to some of them but, oddly enough, more human to me."

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