Who Taught McVeigh to Kill?

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by Mark Swearingen

On March 29, ABCNews.com held a live, one-hour online chat with Dr. John Smith, the psychiatrist who evaluated Timothy McVeigh before his trial six years ago for the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh recently gave his permission to the psychiatrist to discuss his evaluation publicly.

In the chat transcript one of the participants asks: What do you think can be done to prevent more "Timothy McVeighs"?

The psychiatrist said, "[T]he simple answer is they can't be prevented, because from time to time, someone with the skills and determination and makeup that Tim has will come along and do something violent."

Now in contrast to those who want more gun-control laws, more cops, and more airport security to "control" other people, the psychiatrist's answer is refreshingly sane. He's right – people have free will; you can't predict in advance what they're going to do, and you can't prevent all destructive acts from occurring.

But without detracting from the truth in the doctor's answer, we can delve into the circumstances that led to the bombing, and a good place to begin is with the question I pose in my title: who taught Timothy McVeigh to kill?

I wish to offer two answers to this question – a practical answer and a psychological answer.

First, the practical answer. If I wanted to blow up a federal building, I must confess that I really wouldn't know where to begin. Even after all the publicity about ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, I wouldn't know where to get either one, I wouldn't know how to mix them, or what ratios to mix them in, or what kind of containers to store them in, or how big those containers should be, or where to get them, or how to stack them, or what kind of fuse to use, or where to get one. (I do know how to rent a Ryder truck.)

Timothy McVeigh learned and practiced all of these things in the U.S. Army, his training paid for by your taxes and mine. So the "practical" answer is: the army taught him how to kill.

But there is another question that is even more important than the practical one, and that is the psychological one, because mere knowledge of how to do something doesn't compel performance of the act. I know how I could destroy my computer irreparably, and I have just the household tool to do it. But though a hammer has been sitting in my closet for lo these many years, I have yet to unleash its fury on my keyboard and monitor and disk drive.

So even if I knew how to stash a 7,000-pound ammonium nitrate bomb in the back of a Ryder truck (do they pay for all this advertising?), there are moral restraints in my life which would prevent me from acting on such an impulse. I might see the crib through the window. I might listen to the voice of conscience and conclude that perhaps there was a better way. I might remember the words of Christ, who said, "If my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight, so that I would not be handed over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world." (John 18:36)

Now it turns out that all this moral squeamishness that most of us have about killing our fellow human-beings is something problematic for political rulers when they wish to make war on other nations. Because after all the physical training and shooting practice, if your soldier gets to the battlefield and can't bring himself to pull the trigger, then you lose the war.

For this reason, military training is just as much about psychological preparation for battle as it is about learning to make explosives. To make soldiers into efficient killing machines requires a deliberate suppression of conscience. It requires believing that there are situations in which killing is morally acceptable, even heroic.

So the answer to the "psychological" part of the question is: the US Army taught Timothy McVeigh that when there is an enemy target in view, the normal rules of morality concerning the sanctity of human life are suspended. The army taught McVeigh how to ignore his conscience, how to suppress his emotions, how to deny the humanity of his victims.

The psychiatrist was correct that we will never be able to eliminate violence altogether and we will never be able to pass enough laws to prevent every person in the world from exercising their free will in a destructive manner.

But there is something that we can do. Americans don't have to train young men to kill. We don't have to instruct them in the arts of bomb-making, grenade-throwing and missile-launching. We don't have to make efficient killing machines by teaching people how to suppress their conscience and suspend their moral judgment.

Does this mean America must be defenseless? No, the Revolutionary War was fought and won by free men who stood "between their lov'd homes and the war's desolation." To defend oneself and one's family against crime and military aggression is honorable. But to fly young men like Timothy McVeigh across the globe to impose one's empire on a foreign people is neither honorable nor does it increase America's security; rather it provokes resentment, hatred, retaliation and revenge.

And vengeance was a motive McVeigh learned well: "What the US government did at Waco and Ruby Ridge was dirty. And I gave dirty back to them at Oklahoma City."

US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "Taxes are the price we pay for civilization." But civilization is one thing, and military might is something else. As long as Americans want to be the world superpower and train their sons (and daughters) to make war on other nations, there will be a price to pay.

The price is Timothy McVeigh.

Mark Swearingen is an American who moved overseas after the 1999 Nato bombing of Serbia. He works as a software developer for an investment bank in Sydney, Australia.

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