1995: The year the future began
“This is the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil ever. A U.S. government source has told CBS News that it has Middle East terrorism written all over it.”
So declared Connie Chung, co-anchor of the CBS Evening News on April 19, 1995, in a special report about the deadly truck bombing that morning of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City.
Chung, who at the time was in her final weeks in the anchor chair, was among the many journalists, prominent and otherwise, who repeated the flawed narrative that the attack deep in the American heartland was the work of Middle East terrorists.
Over on ABC News, John McWethy, the network’s national security correspondent, reported that “if you talk to intelligence sources and to law enforcement officials, they all say . . . that this particular bombing probably has roots in the Middle East.”
And on CNN earlier in the day, news anchor Frank Sesno said: “We have been told that a number of extremist Islamic groups have been traced to the Oklahoma area, and while there is no specific link yet [to the bombing], I’ve been told that they are among those who are being looked at very, very closely.”
The news media — especially broadcast outlets — leaned hard on what proved to be an erroneous presumption. As such, the reporting in the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing offers a telling reminder about how early news accounts of a major disaster tend to be misleading and off-base.
“It is,” I write in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, “a vulnerability the news media seldom seem to anticipate, or to learn from.”
In pushing the flawed narrative in April 1995, the news media effectively laid the groundwork for enduring suspicions that the bombing at Oklahoma City was the work of a broad and shadowy international conspiracy which, in one inventive telling, included the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Ramzi Yousef.
But as I write in 1995, the 20 years since the bombing at Oklahoma City has produced no compelling evidence that the conspiracy extended beyond an undistinguished trio of disaffected U.S. Army veterans: Timothy J. McVeigh, the remorseless ringleader who was executed in 2001; Terry Nichols, the principal accomplice who is in prison for life, and Michael Fortier, who knew about the bomb plot but did nothing to stop it.
That, I write, “was the likely extent of a ragtag conspiracy that brought about the Murrah Building’s destruction,” killing 168 people and injuring more than 680 others.
“But for many Americans,”I add, “it was just too ragtag, too improbable to embrace. The gravity of the attack in Oklahoma City — not unlike the assassination of President Kennedy — seemed to cry for a plot more substantial and a conspiracy more elaborate and sophisticated than misfit Army buddies angry at the federal government.
But the news media’s first instincts 20 years ago were to press the Middle East angle, and press it hard.
It wasn’t as if blaming Middle East terrorists for the Oklahoma City bombing was preposterous. FBI sources were pushing such suspicions. And somewhat similar cases of spectacular terrorism had targeted the United States or American interests abroad in the 12 preceding years.
The bomb in Oklahoma City was packed into a rented Ryder truck blast, not unlike the truck bomb that killed six people and injured many more at the World Trade Center in February 1993.
What’s more, the devastated Murrah Building bore visual similarities to the facade of the U.S. embassy in Beirut after it was bombed in April 1983.
The Beirut angle was not lost on journalists. The Wall Street Journal likened the Oklahoma City attack to a “Beirut-style car bombing.” The local Daily Oklahoman said the glass and debris that littered the city’s streets in the bombing’s wake brought to mind “Bosnia or Beirut, not Oklahoma City.”
In any event, the U.S. news media made little allowance 20 years ago that the Oklahoma City attack could have been an act of domestic terrorism, that Americans were behind the bombing that took place two years to the day after the disastrous federal assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.
So the surprise was considerable when, two days after the Oklahoma City bombing, McVeigh was taken into federal custody. McVeigh had been arrested less than two hours after the attack, on traffic-related violations north of Oklahoma City. By the time federal agents linked him to the bombing, McVeigh was about to released on bail from jail in Perry, Oklahoma.
As I write in 1995: “The first public glimpse of McVeigh in custody was disconcerting: the bombing suspect was a white American, not a foreigner. He clearly was not of Middle Eastern descent.”
(The Daily Oklahoman, however, did not give up easily on the Middle East angle. In its reporting about the sketches of suspects released by the FBI a day after the attack, the newspaper said: “Although the men appear to be Caucasian, investigators do not know their nationality and have not ruled out that they could be of Middle Eastern descent.”)
Soon enough, suspicions of a Middle East connection to the bombing were supplanted by speculation that the attack at Oklahoma City was the work of a conspiracy of right-wing militia extremists. The New York Times touted that angle, declaring in a front-page article published four days after the bombing:
“Federal investigators said they believed there was a broader plot behind the bombing and were searching for evidence of a conspiracy hatched by several self-styled militiamen who oppose gun laws, income taxes and other forms of government control.”
No such plot was ever uncovered. McVeigh at best had tenuous ties to the militia movement. He nursed extreme, antigovernment views, I write in 1995, but “he never was conclusively linked to antigovernment militias. He certainly was neither a leader of, nor an activist in, such extremist groups.”
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