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The last deluded words of a lost soul

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 10, 2001

William Ernest Henley exists today only as a smallish figure in literature textbooks. He is dwarfed by his friends, still cherished writers from late 19th century Britain like Robert Louis Stevenson.

And despite all the hours, all the words that went into his poetry, Henley is remembered for just one poem. Invictus, he titled it in Latin. Or in English, Undefeated.

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

William Ernest Henley was a bearded man, one-legged and irascible. He was so much all these things that his friend Stevenson used his figure to create that pirate for the ages, Long John Silver, in the book children so love, Treasure Island.

This fact is trivia, but it fits. For Monday morning, in the death chamber at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., America's pirate for the ages, Timothy McVeigh, will make Henley famous as he never was.

Before his executioners kill him with a shot of lethal chemicals, McVeigh intends to make the last lines of Invictus his final words:

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

The way Henley wrote them, those 14 words are a most heroic declaration. Coming out of McVeigh's mouth, they capture his magnificent delusion. He was not an inadequate, inarticulate little man, so afraid of himself and the world that he had to turn his terror outward upon his country and the government that represented it.

He was somebody. He was good.

He was so good he could make a bomb out of fertilizer. No, he wasn't good. He was great. He could blow 168 people to pieces and without blinking call the babies among the dead collateral damage.

That would show them.

Whoever they were.

McVeigh is so obsessed with Henley's poem that he has used pieces of it already. Like a celebrity signing his name to a publicity photo, McVeigh gave a picture of himself to another prisoner last month and signed it, "My head has been bloodied, but it remains unbowed."

The actual lines are these:

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud,

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

I went to Oklahoma City after the bombing. I remember. I remember seeing how the explosion tore the face off the federal building, leaving a crescent-shaped tear, like a mouth frozen in a scream. This was McVeigh's real signature.

I have never had as hard a time distancing myself from events -- the trait that even columnists need so that they're clear-headed enough to gather facts -- as I did in Oklahoma City. There was no distance to be had. This is what terrorism does. It is the ultimate piracy.

It takes from you the fundamental belief that the ground beneath your feet is solid, that the sun will rise tomorrow, and that you live in a community, a country, in no danger of splitting apart from within.

President Kennedy's assassination had some of this awful quality. But Lee Harvey Oswald had dabbled in communism. He hadn't just declared himself an outsider. He had aligned himself with the most scorned of foreigners.

Not so McVeigh. He was a good soldier, they said. He had been an ordinary boy. Then he was transformed into a fountain of rage, a killer of children and grandparents and in-laws, a man not even worthy of the words, May God have mercy on your soul.

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