One of my most enduring memories of the Oklahoma City Bombing, which occurred fifteen years ago today, is not even about the bombing or the day itself, but the murderer. How incredibly average and unremarkable the bomber looked, I thought to myself as I sat yards away from Timothy McVeigh in a Federal Distict Court trial in Denver in the Spring of 1997. The April 19, 1995 ammonium nitrate truck bomb detonated by McVeigh killed 168 and at the time was the worst act of domestic terrorism on American soil in the nation's history, and remains the worst committed by an American.
Worst Terrorist Incidents Directed Towards Americans by U.S. Deaths
1. 9/11 Attacks, Incendiary Bombing by Aircraft, NY, DC, PA 2973 killed, 9/11/ 2001
2. U.S. Marine Barracks, Truck Bombing , Beirut, Leb., 241killed (US) 10/23/1983
3. Pan Am Fl. 103, Aircraft Bombing, Lockerbie, Scotland, 270 killed (189 US), 12/21/ 1988
4. Murrah Fed. Bldg., Truck Bombing, Oklahoma City, OK, 168 killed 4/19/1995
Anti-government extremists Timothy McVeigh/Terry Nichols
5. Wall Street Bombing, Horse cart Bomb, NY, 35 killed, 9/16/1920
Socialists/Anarchists Supsected (unsolved)
6. Los Angeles Times Bldg., Bombing,Los Angeles, CA, 21killed, 10/01/ 1910
7. Khobar Towers, Truck Bombing, Khobar, Saudi Arabia, 20 Killed (19 US), 6/26/ 1996
8. USS Cole, Boat Bomb, Aden, Yemen, 17 killed, 10/12/ 2000
9. Lod Airport Attack, Grenades/Guns, Tel Aviv, Israel, 26 killed (16 US est.), 5/30/1972
Japanese Red Army/Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
10.TIE U.S. Embassies, Truck Bombing, Kenya/Tanzania, 224 killed (12 US), 8/07/ 1998
11. TWA Fl. 841, Bomb, 88 Killed (12 US), 9/08/1974
Two years after the attack while doing research I observed an eerily calm McVeigh in the courtroom of Federal District Court Judge Richard Matsch in Denver, where the trial had been moved. As he sat neatly, but casually dressed in khakis and a long sleeve button down shirt open at the collar, he could easily have been mistaken for a court worker or paralegal. He engaged in calm friendly banter with his attorneys punctuated by smiles, during breaks, but listened intently, taking his own notes at times when key pieces of evidence were discussed. If not for the fact that he was standing trial for the worst mass murder in American history, including 17 children, he could have easily been someone I asked for directions at a gas station then quickly forgot about. Despite his unremarkable appearance there was an important thing about that made him dangerous. A combination of personal setbacks and experiences caused him to be aloof from such things as his faith, his family (he was estranged from his mother as a youth), a stable career,, and his fellow citizens. Those who are angry and opt out of society can be particularly vulnerable to extremist belief systems and mass acts of violence. Before his execution McVeigh noted: [T]he truth is, I blew up the Murrah Building and isn't it kind of scary that one man could wreak this kind of hell."
In the moral universe, people who commit such atrocities should be excised from society and quickly forgotten. The mostly anonymous heroes, victims, and survivors are the ones who offer society the most important lessons about hope, inspiration, the sanctity of life, rule of law and the senselessness of violent anger. Yet, in a perverse way, the large number killed in acts of mass murder, coupled with our increasingly short attention spans often deprive us of the empathy necessary to truly draw important moral distinctions.
Extremism analysts learn something else, which isn't pleasant. The vacuum created by those unable to connect empathetically to victims and understand the consequences of twisted ideologies leaves an additional perversion in its wake. For extremists, responsibility, both moral and otherwise is routinely shifted away from the perpetrators and their ideological compatriots onto the victims and the perceived unjust society they were a part of. The most disgusting aspects are those observers who make heroes out of monsters, and who justify mass violence against civilians and symbolic targets through twisted facts and morals.
This is not to absolve the government for its part in the horrendous failures which left civilians dead in the debacles at Ruby Ridge involving the Weavers in 1992 or in Waco involving the Branch Davidians one year later. For extremists like McVeigh, April 19th represented cosmic payback against a rotting ruling system. The anniversary of the firey end of the Waco standoff, that left 80 dead, was also the date of the first skirmishes of the Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord in 1775. For extremists Waco and Ruby Ridge are rallying cries that our system is a failed one in a sustained war with its own citizens. For many like me, the lesson is that a government of checks and balances is needed precisely because flawed humans will sometimes occupy positions of high authority within it. One is an invitation to violent anarchy while the other recognizes that the best antidote to official misconduct is a respect for the rule of law.
Partisans on both sides of the political spectrum often conflate politics with extremism. Conservatives of good will, who go to church, promote limited government, free enterprise and a respect for our institutions are not extremists, any more so than liberals involved in sustainable energy and animal rescue are. However, those who flagrantly incite hatred and intentional falsehoods, as opposed to healthy skepticism, about our system and those who serve in it are doing their fellow citizens a disservice. When legislative and electoral losses become an excuse to abandon or declare war on our system of government, rather than an invitation for reform, the extremists are more than willing to carry the conflict to the next level.
I tried to make this point in response to a challenge from Pat Buchanan on CNN's Crossfire in 1996:
BUCHANAN: Brian, I've got two quick questions. The first one relates to Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, who are really, who are almost virtually blamed for inciting the violence or the climate of hatred, etc., in which this bombing occurred. Now, not a single shred of evidence has come out that this individual who allegedly did it, McVeigh, was responding to that. Don't you think an injustice was done to Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh?
LEVIN: Well, if what you're saying is were they responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, of course they weren't. But let's talk about something else. Let's talk about an atmosphere of intolerance that's been growing, particularly, Pat, with some of your friends on the right. G. Gordon Liddy on the radio talking about how to assassinate a federal agent by shooting him in the head, talking talk, the NRA, who Larry Pratt considers a bunch of liberals, calling government agents jack booted government thugs. As a third generation law enforcement officer and a gun owner, I am incensed by this kind of rhetoric and we have to tone it down, Pat.
The same can be said today. What is scary is that it is not fatal violent government abuses like Waco that appear to be motivating some of the hatred today, but rather traditional political defeats. Making conditions worse is 9.7% unemployment (as opposed to 5.6% in 1995), a greater degree of distrust of our institutions than a decade ago, and those who regard diversity as a threat. With so much anger out there it is simply irresponsible for some political leaders and talking heads to so prominently appear to countenance abandonment of our system along with shrouded approvals of violence and discredited conspiracy theories.
John McCain, whose campaign and more accurately his running mate were far from flawless, nonetheless made a critical point about the need for respect for our leaders and processes in his finest and final hour as a candidate. Many conservative leaders and commentators (as well as some liberals too, for that matter) who would who engage in meritless conspiracy theories and the premeditated demonization of political rivals and our system itself could learn a bit of wisdom from the aging war hero :
In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.
This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.
I've always believed that America offers opportunities to all who have the industry and will to seize it. Sen. Obama believes that, too.
But we both recognize that, though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation's reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound.
A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt's invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters.
America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States.
Let there be no reason now ... Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth.
Sen. Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country. I applaud him for it, and offer him my sincere sympathy that his beloved grandmother did not live to see this day. Though our faith assures us she is at rest in the presence of her creator and so very proud of the good man she helped raise.
Sen. Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain.
These are difficult times for our country. And I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.
I urge all Americans ... I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.
Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.