For many, McVeigh will die a hero

This time next month, more than a thousand hacks and dozens of television trucks and satellite dishes will descend on a small town on the Wabash River in western Indiana, named Terre Haute. From there, they will breathlessly report - down to the tiniest detail, we can be sure - the full story of the last minutes of Timothy James McVeigh, aka the Oklahoma City bomber. The US Bureau of Prisons has already produced a 54-page "execution protocol", detailing exactly what will happen on 16 May. McVeigh, 32, will be taken from his cell 30 minutes before execution, strip-searched, and then manacled hand, waist and foot if he resists; separate teams will be in charge of tying down his arms, waist, legs and chest on a T-shaped gurney. Then a steady intravenous stream of sodium pentothal, Pavulon and potassium chloride will kill him - and, later, the execution chamber "will be cleaned and restored to its previous condition".

McVeigh's execution will be unusual for three reasons. First, he will be the first man put to death by the federal government since 1963. From 1927 until then, the US government executed just 34 people; by contrast, state executioners have put to death more than 700 people since the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976. During that period, laws have widened to allow more people to be executed by the federal government rather than by states; McVeigh qualifies because he was convicted of driving a "weapon of mass destruction" (the bomb) across state borders, and a dozen others now also await death at the special federal unit in Terre Haute. Second, McVeigh's death will almost certainly be watched by more than 200 relatives of the victims of the Oklahoma bombing on closed-circuit television; contraband tapes, we can be sure, will soon make their way on to the internet and perhaps even Rupert Murdoch's TV stations and newspapers.

But the third phenomenon is the most striking. When the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building was blown up in Oklahoma six years ago - and 168 people, including 19 children, killed - the immediate presumption was that the culprits were Middle Eastern terrorists. One hapless, entirely innocent Arab was dragged off a plane and questioned for hours. Only when a vehicle number was identified on an axle of the rented Ryder truck used for the explosion did the investigative trail lead back to the all-American boy McVeigh, a former sergeant in the 16th Regiment of the First Infantry Division of the US Army who had won a Bronze Star in the Gulf war. Like the schoolboy shooters about whom I wrote recently, McVeigh represents a frightening new American phenomenon: the angry young white man who finds that doors hitherto open to people like him are now slammed shut.

McVeigh grew up in the almost entirely white, semi-rural community of Pendleton, in New York State. His father was a car worker and Little League baseball coach who ran bingo night at his local Catholic church; at ten, his mother abandoned her family and moved with one daughter (and later another) to Florida, leaving McVeigh alone with dad. A year later, McVeigh Sr's employer ran into trouble - and McVeigh Jr embarked on a period of intense introversion, with guns as his major preoccupation. Later, in the army, Timothy McVeigh was singled out as being ripe for promotion - but when he tried to realise his life's ambition of joining the Green Berets (the US equivalent of the SAS) he was rejected. From serving with distinction in the Gulf war in 1991, he became embittered with a racially diverse country and government that he thought had no time for the likes of him.

And the country in which he had grown up had, indeed, changed radically just during the 1990s. Racist resentment is a theme that repeatedly emerges both in McVeigh's ramblings and in those of many of the school shooters: in California alone, whites are now a minority among the 33.9 million residents, and in the last decade there has been a 43 per cent increase in Asians there. Nearly one-third of the state's population, too, is Latino. The median age for the country as a whole is 35.8. But for whites it is older, at 38.5. For Asians it is 32.3, for blacks 30.5, for Native Americans 28.5, for Latinos 26.6.

The result is that opportunities available in previous generations for all-American white boys such as McVeigh have lessened considerably. They are now competing for education and jobs with ambitious, computer-savvy Asians and hard-working Hispanics; in the cases of McVeigh and Andy Williams, last month's school shooter in California, feelings of hopelessness and rejection burgeoned into murderous rage. McVeigh, just a decade ago a rising star in US Army ranks, was convicted of committing the worst mass murder in US history - and with a linguistic brutality doubtless acquired in the army, dismissed the deaths of the 19 children as mere "collateral" damage in his wider quest to inflict damage on the federal government he had once served but grown to despise.

In the eyes of many angry young white men like him, McVeigh will go to a martyr's death on 16 May. He, in turn, seems determined to die a hero in the eyes of the disaffected; I was never entirely convinced his guilt was proven in his trial, but he is now taking full credit for the 168 deaths. His last words, I gather, will be "sic semper tyrannis", to sum up his muddled philosophies about government oppression - and, in particular, the federal raid that killed 76 members of a semi- religious cult in Waco, Texas, two years to the day before the Oklahoma bombing.

Then, just to show the sheer hatred that consumes the young man who grew up in Pendleton and once worked for Burger King, he will give the final score for his act of revenge: "168 to 1".

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.