BERLIN — With rare exceptions, the world watched with horror and disbelief Monday as U.S. authorities inflicted the ultimate penalty on America's most notorious terrorist.
The execution of Timothy J. McVeigh was widely viewed from abroad as a vengeful throwback to a less civilized era.
Even in Eastern Europe, where death penalty proponents are a majority, the manner of McVeigh's demise drew reproach for the ghoulish media attention and public curiosity surrounding it. Only in China and Japan--among the few major powers that still invoke capital punishment--did many regard the execution as justice served. And even some of those argued that McVeigh's death was just what he wanted and spared him the suffering of life in prison.
All 15 nations of the European Union and all 43 Council of Europe states ban capital punishment and require new members to do so. That has left only Turkey as a practitioner of execution on the continent, and even it has been observing an undeclared moratorium as it seeks inclusion in the EU. This situation has elevated capital punishment to a human rights violation in the eyes of Europeans, if not a sign of moral decay in those societies that still use it.
"The death penalty is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it," Amnesty International of Germany said Monday. "By imitating what it seeks to condemn--the deliberate taking of human life--the state is allowing those who kill to set society's moral tone."
Sacks of mail delivered to U.S. embassies across Europe did nothing to prevent McVeigh's death. But Europeans unhappy with what they see as disregard for their values--whether about environmental protection, missile defense or executions--plan to vent their frustrations during a six-day visit by President Bush that begins today and will take him to Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Poland and Slovenia.
Memories of summary executions during eras of dictatorship still haunt Europeans, from Spain to the former Soviet Union. The last execution among the EU states was 24 years ago in France.
Most government officials around the world had nothing to say about the execution in Indiana, but the media spoke for the populations.
"Even justified killing makes us murderers," declared Germany's mass-circulation Bild newspaper. "We must say 'no' to the vengeful beast within us."
In Italy--where Pope John Paul II made an appeal for clemency, as he has before each U.S. execution during his tenure--newspapers criticized the media for turning the execution into a circus. La Repubblica called it "a Disneyland of the gallows."
In Israel, where revenge and an-eye-for-an-eye killings are as old as the Bible, the daily Maariv editorialized against the death penalty in comments that seemed directed at local circumstances.
"A society that executes people just to satisfy desires for revenge is not much better than the criminal urges that guide those who perpetrate acts of terrorism," said the paper, which also dismissed the deterrent effect of capital punishment on "lunatics" like McVeigh.
Among those protesting Bush's European visit is a Spaniard who spent three years on Florida's death row before his conviction was overturned last week. In the few days since his return to his homeland, 30-year-old Joaquin Jose Martinez has become a symbol of Europe's disdain for a U.S. execution policy seen as applying mostly to the poor, nonwhite and the mentally deficient.
"All this does is cause more harm," Martinez said of McVeigh's execution. "It causes more harm and the guy dies a hero."
Those pushing for a global ban on executions conceded that they faced a considerable obstacle in McVeigh's case because of his utter failure to inspire sympathy.
"Timothy McVeigh is too perfect an example of someone who needs to be erased from the Earth, in the eyes of many people," said Margrit Sprecher, a Swiss sociologist and scholar on capital punishment.
Sentiments about the death penalty are more complicated in Eastern Europe, where memories of totalitarian abuses are fading against a present-day backdrop of rising crime. Though executions are no longer conducted in countries seeking admission into the EU, support in extraordinary cases like McVeigh's remains strong.
"If a crime is committed in cold blood, well prepared with full awareness of who would perish--children and adults--it is difficult to have doubts, even if one is a strong [religious] believer," said Warsaw pensioner Stanislaw Wypych.
Russia, for its part, is grudgingly observing a moratorium on executions to keep its membership in the Council of Europe. Many average citizens support capital punishment, but the intelligentsia urges taking the moral high road. Recalling reports about U.S. executions of inmates later found to have been not guilty, writer Anatoly I. Pristavkin exclaimed: "And this happened in America--the country always referred to as a model of righteousness!"