- Poetry, Terrorism, and the Uncanny: “Timothy McVeigh’s ‘Invictus’”
Timothy McVeigh—the Oklahoma City Bomber—was executed by lethal injection at the Federal Correctional Complex at Terre Haute in Indiana on June 11, 2001. He made no verbal statement to those who had gathered to witness his execution.1 He did, however, offer the following handwritten document as his “Final Written Statement” (figure 1):2 [End Page 485]
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According to the New York Times, this document was “distributed [to the media] by officials at the federal prison in Terre Haute.”3
McVeigh had been found guilty of bombing (with the aid of two coconspirators) the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on 19 April (Patriot’s Day) 1995. It was an act that killed 168 people, including nineteen children, fifteen of whom were in the America’s Kids Day Care Center housed within the Murrah Building. It was the deadliest act of terrorism within the United States prior to 9/11. After his conviction, McVeigh argued that his attack was a justifiable response to the US government, citing deadly sieges caused by federal agents at Waco, Texas, in 1993, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992. McVeigh was tried in a federal court for the murder of eight federal officers and subsequently became the first convicted criminal to be executed by the US federal government since 1963.
I do not wish to discuss here McVeigh’s possible motives. Nor do I wish to discuss the trial, save for one moment in the proceedings. Rather, I wish to attend to McVeigh’s “Final Written Statement,” a document that attracts little more than a quizzical mention in most accounts of McVeigh’s crime and punishment. At first glance, the text is outwardly simple. The main text, with its lineation and use of end rhyme, is clearly a poem. The document’s peritexts—to use Gérard Genette’s term for those paratextual communicative elements at the threshold of a text—are notably spare, failing to tell us two important things about the text: the title and the author of the poem. The poem is “Invictus,” Latin for “unconquerable,” and it was written by W. E. Henley in 1875 in response to the amputation of his leg due to the bone tuberculosis he suffered throughout his life. The poem is described by The Oxford Companion to English Literature as a “defiant and stoic” work.4 Despite its low status in elite literary culture, it continues to be cited as an inspirational work for readers, ranging from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown5—which one commentator saw as “equivalent to choosing ‘My Way’ as a Desert Island Disc”6—to an anonymous reader of O: The Oprah Magazine.7
McVeigh’s decision to present a culturally ambiguous poem as his, or the metonym for his, “final statement” makes this document an exceptionally difficult one to gloss. What would it mean to read this poem as “Timothy McVeigh’s ‘Invictus’”? To what extent is this work a literary act? To what extent is it even a poem? How do we reconcile this act of quotation with other acts of literary appropriation? “Timothy McVeigh’s ‘Invictus’” is, I would argue, a limit case for our understanding of poetry, quotation, and the relationship between literary and nonliterary discourses. [End Page 486]
In this essay, I will consider how McVeigh’s enigmatic act of appropriation produces a poetry of the uncanny whereby seemingly stable categories such as poet and terrorist are shown to be disquietingly porous. I will also consider how “Timothy McVeigh’s ‘Invictus’” demonstrates the volatility of some basic concerns of contemporary literary theory, especially with regard to quotation, obscurity, and poetic address. Lastly, I wish to consider how “Timothy McVeigh’s ‘Invictus’” illustrates the unpredictable ways that a supposedly marginal cultural practice—poetry—can act in times of crisis.
The elision of the poem’s title for the document’s title is an important feature of the writing and dissemination of McVeigh’s “Final Written Statement.” The omission of the word “Invictus” may have been a mistake on McVeigh’s behalf. (It seems unlikely...