And as we slowly separate from our worldly desires
we think the unthinkable.
~ 40 Below Summer
There are certain places on this Earth — like modern day, war-torn Baghdad — where a giant blast at 9:01 in the morning would earn itself little more than a moment’s pause. Not so in April 19, 1995 Oklahoma City, smack dab in America’s Midwest. The sudden explosion that took down a federal office building, killing 168 men, women, and children and injuring hundreds more, was most certainly out of the ordinary. It’s always the unusual that grabs our attention and heightens our emotion, so while in Baghdad such a blast is called a day at the market, in America’s heartland it’s called by its proper name — a tragedy.
The authorities quickly apprehended the mastermind behind the attack — Timothy McVeigh, a decorated American war hero and Army veteran. Unlike so much of what happens around us, the inexplicable tragedies that leave us asking why without any real hope for an answer, here the why was no mystery to anyone who knew Timothy McVeigh.
The idea for Oklahoma City was birthed in the massacre at Waco, Texas that happened exactly two years prior to the day of April 19, 1995. The matching date of the two attacks was no coincidence.
Building the Perfect Beast
No one close to him thought he was anything but perfectly normal.
~ from American Terrorist
Like most of history’s more vile figures Timothy McVeigh, for the most part, appeared to be just an ordinary average guy. There was nothing in his early days that gave warning he was contemplating or even capable of doing what he did. How often have we seen this, the crowd looking on perplexed as body bag after body bag is bought up from the basement of their long-time neighbor, the one who was always so good with the children during the annual block parties?
Gregarious when he wanted to be, hard-working, meticulous, and blessed with a high IQ, when all was said and done McVeigh’s body count total ranks him up there with many better known killers, but lacking the charisma of a Che or a Charles Manson there will be no college students displaying his face on their dorm walls or t-shirts. Quickly fading, we should grab onto whatever lessons McVeigh can teach us before time crushes his memory.
Complain all you wish about Missouri’s "Modern Militia Movement" report (designed to spot a real or potential terrorist), McVeigh certainly hit on red all across the list. Supports third-party candidates? McVeigh voted for Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne in 1996, casting his absentee ballot from the SuperMax federal prison. Conspiracy theories? He had them in abundance.
Subversive literature? More than anything, it was McVeigh’s reading of The Turner Diaries — the story of a gun rights enthusiast who uses a self-made truck bomb to take down the FBI’s Washington headquarters — that set the stage for what was to come. McVeigh was deeply impressed by the book and copied it as the blueprint for Oklahoma City.
Shortly after he first read the book McVeigh volunteered for the US Army. He would remember his first two years of service as the happiest time of his life. He had found a home, and dedicated himself with a fanaticism that earned him a tryout for the elite Green Berets, but the First Gulf War intervened. Instead of Fort Bragg, McVeigh was sent with his unit to far off Mesopotamia.
Assigned to the first wave of the American led ground assault, he found himself feeling sympathetic towards the Iraqis and wondering what the Army was doing so far from home. Back stateside after the conflict, he washed out of Green Berets training and was honorably discharged from the military in late 1991.
McVeigh had been given firsthand observations of a far-flung empire and he was revolted by what he saw. Turning his back on what he had hoped to be a new family and now once again a civilian, by many accounts he was increasingly embittered and prone to curse-filled tirades about the federal government.
For the rest of his days he would lead a life unstructured, living in a fringe world of gun shows and endless drifting across America, liberally handing out white supremacist literature to mark his passing. Having little to do with his family, he came home to New York but infrequently.
The fuse in his mind was lit by the events in Waco, Texas during a 51-day stand off in March and April 1993 between a Protestant religious sect and hundreds of heavily armed federal agents, the latter tricked out with both air power and armored vehicles. The resultant military assault to end it all, when Attorney General Janet Reno ordered the slaughter that killed 76 people, including 20 children and 2 pregnant women was, in the mind of Timothy McVeigh, a declaration of war on the American people by their own government.
From his father to his few friends to the people who worked with him, all agree, and McVeigh always made it bluntly clear, that the tragedy in Oklahoma City was a direct response to what had happened at Waco two years prior. While Rudy Giuliani would doubtless consider such a theory "extraordinary," thinking that maybe McVeigh launched the attack because he "hates our freedom," the FBI, the jury, and everyone else had no doubt that "blowback" would be the perfect description for what happened.
In the end, his dreams of eventual glory in the eyes of his fellow Americans, who according to McVeigh will one day view him as a patriot, will likely remain a still-born project. For all his willingness to take action, McVeigh suffered from the characteristic flaw of the modern American mind — the frantic urge to act without giving a moment’s thought to what you are about to do.
Road to Ruin
I’ve seen it many times, nice people doing really terrible things.
~ Dr. John Smith, court psychiatrist to McVeigh
Despite his superior IQ, McVeigh, like many highly intelligent people, had a big dose of stupid in him. His plan and how he pulled it off proves the accusation. The sad, ironic tragedy of Timothy McVeigh was this; when all was said and done, he became everything he supposedly despised.
Timothy McVeigh’s low opinion of government employees was arguably given credence by their behavior towards him and his family during the aftermath of the bombing. From FBI agents breaking into and inundating his father’s home with listening devices — even after his father had offered the keys — to the thuggish interrogation techniques used against his sister, to the FBI picking up defense witnesses at the local airport for an intimidating ride to the courthouse, to the sleep deprivation and inhumane treatment practiced on McVeigh himself, the federal government gave every indication that it is the lawless, out of control threat McVeigh claimed it to be.
As the trail came to a close, government prosecutor Larry Mackey asked the jurors "Who are the patriots, and who is the traitor"? In this case, no one was the former and everyone was the latter. In a country with any respect for the rule of law, Janet Reno (who bears ultimate responsibility for Waco) would have shared a cellblock in the SuperMax with Timothy McVeigh, waiting her turn with justice. Yet, the fact that she went unpunished gave McVeigh no reason to bring down a building on top of 168 people who had nothing at all to do with Waco.
Despite McVeigh’s expressed admiration for our Founding Fathers, Larry Mackey was dead on when he stated, "our forefathers didn’t fight women and children…they didn’t plant bombs and run away," (Michel, 2001, p. 320) and when he reminded the jury that, "he committed murder. This is a murder case" (Michel, 2001, p. 341) he was exactly correct. The Founding Fathers would not have condoned the collective punishment that McVeigh inflicted.
For all the hypocrisy of the same organization that pulled off the massacre at Waco beating its breast over the massacre at Oklahoma City, the government’s case against McVeigh was airtight. Timothy McVeigh was guilty as sin, and was nothing more than a mass murderer. From using threats against Terry Nicolas’s family to extract his help in mixing the bomb components to his deliberate, blasé attitude towards the massive "collateral damage" he caused, McVeigh proved himself no more worthy of respect than the government he felt such a hatred towards.
Coupled with his claim that, "I did it for the larger good," McVeigh’s last words to the court after his sentencing were a pathetic cop-out for a man who otherwise gladly took credit for every step of his murderous rampage. He quoted Justice Brandeis, "for good or ill, (the government) teaches the whole people by its example." Such words are nothing but an excuse, like a child telling his mother that he broke a window only because Johnny broke one first. McVeigh tried to argue that all is fair in love and war, as if murdering 168 completely innocent strangers somehow conformed to the rules of a just war.
It’s sad to say but there is much truth in Stalin’s famous opinion "one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." Like all collective activities, dying in mass removes much of the individuality that each victim deserves. Because of this, except for close friends and family, nobody could likely name a single one of McVeigh’s victims who died that April 19th. From Lucio Aleman Jr. to John Youngblood and all the other 166 murdered in between, everyone from that building is forever known to most by the term "168."
Yet, if there are two who stand out in this tragedy for the fact they are not counted as victims at all, it was McVeigh’s parents, William and Mickey. Bud Welch, a man who lost a 23-year-old daughter at Oklahoma City, felt William McVeigh to be an "even bigger victim of the bombing than himself." (Michel, 2001, p. 388) True to character, Timothy McVeigh considered his parents’ anguish regrettable but necessary "collateral damage."
For the rest of their days, every relative or friend of those 168 will desperately miss their loved one and can soothe their grief in the comfort of others. In contrast, Timothy McVeigh’s parents must go through life without a son and with a past that lies upon their life like a dark cloak, they are condemned to plod along forever fearful that someone will find out they birthed an abomination. Theirs is a secret wound that will never heal, and they bear the scars without even the sympathy of their fellow man.
So on this date, which calls us to remember each of the 168 lives destroyed, we should also extend our sympathy to include William and Mickey McVeigh who, through no fault of their own, have been devastated by the Oklahoma City bombing in a way that most cannot even begin to comprehend.
- Others Unknown: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing Conspiracy, by Stephen Jones and Peter Israel, Public Affairs, 1998, (New York, NY)
- Secrets Worth Dying For: Timothy James McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing, by David Hammer and Jeffrey Paul, 1st Books Library, 2004.
- American Terrorist, by Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck, Regan Books, 2001, (New York, NY)
C.J. Maloney [send him mail] lives and works in New York City.