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Saying No to Your Boss

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I drove east, two states away, to watch a man die. This shouldn't have come as a shock. I was a news reporter and had covered death almost daily for many years. I had covered the carnage left by ravenous tornadoes, consuming fires, and death-hungry gun battles that fed on teenage boys. I'd even worked the obituary desk on Christmas Day.

I had grown strangely familiar with death, and I had grown steely cold to it, for it was the only way I knew to survive it.

But this pilgrimage eastward was different. This death was scheduled, and the idea of seeing a killer face-to-face before his heart stopped cold sent my own heart pounding.

Deathwatch of a Killer

On that summer day in 2001, I had been assigned by my newspaper to cover the execution of Timothy McVeigh, who had bombed the Oklahoma City federal building six years earlier.

McVeigh was to die at 7:00 a.m. by lethal injection in the execution chamber of the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.

I arrived a day early, so I could cover the events leading up to the execution.

Belly swelling with our firstborn, I walked a mile to the prison grounds, and it was like walking down Midway at the State Fair. People were outside the prison grounds selling 25-cent lemonade and shish kabobs. Others hawked T-shirts. Protesters were picnicking at the roadside. News reporters were "carrying it live," sharing death with a worldwide audience.

This was how America participated in the dizzying deathwatch of a terrorist. And I had just become a part of this macabre spectacle; me, this round-bellied mama-to-be with a spiral-bound notebook in my hand.

Feeling Stuck

An editor assigned me to travel to the prison because of an Iowa connection to the story. A native Iowan had died in the bombing, and his brother was assigned as one of ten victim witnesses to watch McVeigh die.

Ten other seats were available for news media, and my editor instructed me to sign up for a "chance" to see the killing of a killer.

A reporter's dream opportunity felt like a nightmare. By the time I was halfway across Illinois, I knew I couldn't watch someone be killed—no matter how humane the process, no matter how much pain McVeigh had inflicted on others, no matter how many times I'd seen the aftermath of death before.

I just couldn't do it.

I felt physically sick, so prone to queasiness anyhow as new baby-life grew in me. How could I watch as they injected a lethal cocktail into human veins?

Sodium pentothal, to render him unconscious.
Pancuronium bromide, to collapse his lungs.
Potassium chloride, to stop his heart.

All I wanted to do was go home. The world was racing and protesting and chanting for death, reporters with microphones and cameras were finding their places, and I wanted out of the race.

I went back to the hotel room to file the story of McVeigh's last day alive. Then, instead of returning to the prison that evening to sign up as a potential witness of the next morning's execution, this weary mama went to bed and prayed a feeble prayer: "Lord, help me."

I couldn't do it. I said no.

Saying No . . . and Meaning It

Even without witnessing the execution, I got the story after interviewing other witnesses to the execution. But it wasn't the same as a firsthand account.

Almost a decade later, of this I am certain: I would still say no. But I would have handled things differently with my editor. If I didn't think I could stomach watching an execution, I should have told the editor up front so he could assign the story to a more willing reporter.

In at least one sense, I stand tall: I had considered lying to my editor, telling him that I had signed up as a witness but that my name hadn't been drawn. I decided to tell him the truth instead.

As I drove west toward my home in Iowa that afternoon, I felt peace. For the first time I can remember, I responded from my heart with a resounding "no" when everything else in me said "just do it."

Too often in my life, I've said "yes" to things I didn't really want to do—for fear of disappointing someone, for fear of looking like a failure.

But something changed in me that day on the grounds of a federal prison. That day I learned that the human heart can respond with a resounding "no" even when the world says "yes."

Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:

  • Take a moment to reflect on a time when you were asked by a supervisor to do something that went against your personal or spiritual beliefs. How did you handle it?
  • How hard is it for you to say no when the request comes from the top?
  • How might you have handled the situation involving the McVeigh execution differently?
  • Read Galatians 1:10. How can this verse be a guide when we are faced with disappointing our superiors?
  • For more, read Andrea Emerson's article about building a good reputation in the workplace or Johnathan Dodson's article about being in the workplace, but not of it.
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