Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Killer in the Cemetery: the Ethical Problem of Subsequent Shame

Russell Wagner served his country honorably in Viet Nam, but not so honorably after: he was convicted of murdering Daniel and Wilda Davis of Hagerstown, Maryland. Nonetheless, he was eligible for burial with other war veterans in Arlington National Cemetery, America’s Westminster Abbey, a place of honor for heroes and Presidents. After he died last year while serving two life sentences for the fatal stabbings, his ashes were interred during a ceremony with full military honors. This, understandably, didn’t sit well with Vernon Davis, whose parents were Wagner’s victims. He sought the help of Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, and now the U.S. Senate has passed a bill that would remove Wagner’s remains from the national burial ground, as well as barring future burials of convicted murderers who, prior to their offenses, fought for their country.

Is this fair?

Interestingly, nobody even considered the issue before 1997, when the prospect of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh being buried in Arlington prompted passage of a law that blocked the honor for any veteran receiving a death sentence or a life sentence without parole. But that still left open the possibility of an Arlington burial for individuals like Wagner, who was eligible for parole, or even Dennis Rader, the BTK serial killer. “That’s a very honorable place to go, and to call him [Wright] an honorable man was wrong,” Davis told the Washington Post. He’ll get no argument here, but surely being “honorable” isn’t the issue, is it? The idea behind Arlington National Cemetery is that service in the armed forces during wartime is honorable by definition. That honor is recognized by burial in Arlington National Cemetery. When disgraced ex-Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a decorated veteran, expires, he will be eligible for Arlington interment despite selling the integrity of his high office for cash and gifts. Honorable? Exactly how far should this principle of retroactive dishonor go?

Once we decide that someone can disqualify themselves for the honor they earned in the service of their country, where do we draw the line? The new law will affect only those found guilty of particularly heinous murders. What about those who have not had to face a judge or jury, but are nonetheless culpable? General Philip Sheridan was a bona fide hero of the Civil War; there is even an epic poem about his heroism. He also was a chief architect of the systematic slaughter of American Indians. Remember “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”? That’s Sheridan’s quote in Bartlett’s.


Service in a foreign war has been deemed sufficient to erase past dishonor, even treason. A case in point was Confederate Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler, who despite taking up arms against his country in one war qualified for burial at Arlington by serving that country in another, the Spanish American. Nobody raised an eyebrow when he was buried; Wheeler had earned his honor. Wagner earned it too. The cemetery contains traitors, slaveholders, philanderers, drug-dealers, thieves, swindlers, racists, wife-beaters, frauds, arsonists, liars, cheats, child-molesters, rapists and murderers. Many of them got away with their crimes; many did not. If we begin judging these men and women beyond the original criteria for burial, either the cemetery must necessarily cease to be regarded as a place of honor, or there will have to be a mass disinterment of all those who do not qualify as “honorable” under whatever moral code we choose to apply.

It also seems more than a little ironic for men who were trained and ordered to kill by their country to be shunned later for being unable to stop to practicing what they were taught. The devastating emotional and mental damage afflicting many combat veterans is a matter of record, and its role in planting the seeds of drug use (Wagner died of a heroin overdose), mental illness and violence is well-documented. Indeed, the tragic and violent life path of veterans like Wagner could easily be seen as part of their sacrifice for their country, rather than something that invalidated it.

And yetÂ…allow Timothy McVeigh and the BTK (“bind them, torture them, kill them.”) killer to be buried in Arlington? One can imagine the military dead rising up from their graves and marching on the Capital in disgust. Then again, many of them might find that the residents of their neighboring graves would recoil if they knew their own dark secrets.

The Scoreboard’s shaky verdict on this question is that policy should not be dictated by worst case scenarios. Special exceptions should be available to keep the BTKs out of Arlington, just as special exemptions have been granted to let others in. As a matter of equity and fairness, however, the honor earned by wartime service should remain regardless of the life that follows, and with it the right to be buried with heroes.

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