1995: The year the future began
PBS on Tuesday is to air an “American Experience” documentary about the deadliest episode of home-grown terrorism in U.S. history, the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.
The program revisits a crime staggering in its cruelty.
The bomber, a 27-year-old Army veteran of the Gulf War named Timothy McVeigh, parked a yellow rental Ryder truck packed with 7,000 pounds of explosives outside the Murrah federal building the morning of April 19, 1995. He later would say he wanted to teach the federal government a grievous lesson for its role in confrontations such as the fiery Branch Davidian disaster in Texas in 1993.
McVeigh also said he wanted a high body count in Oklahoma City.
On the Murrah building’s second floor, offering a view of the street where McVeigh parked the truck, was a day care center. Nineteen children were among the 168 people killed in the bombing; the victims ranged in age from 73 to 3 months.
McVeigh, who had distant and tenuous ties to right-wing extremist groups active at the time, was put to death for his crimes. His principal co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, was sentenced to life in prison.
The forthcoming documentary represents more than reexamination of a wanton terrorist attack: Its airing reminds us anew of the enduring significance of a decisive year — the subject of 1995: The Year the Future Began, my 2015 book published by University of California Press.
Even now, it is not difficult to encounter reminders of the pivotal character of 1995.
The ugly 2016 presidential campaign was made uglier by Donald Trump’s periodic references to Bill Clinton’s dalliance with a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Clinton’s clandestine affair, which nearly cost him his presidency, began in mid-November 1995 during a partial shutdown of the federal government which, itself, was a source of lasting, bipartisan enmity in national politics.
Popular fascination remains keen in the 1995 O. J. Simpson double-murder trial — as suggested by the two critically acclaimed, multi-part television series that aired last year on FX and ESPN. The programs, respectively, presented a dramatized version of the trial and revisited Simpson’s celebrated football career and his subsequent misdeeds.
The much-watched programs suggested that something about the Simpson case remains unresolved and unredeemed in the national consciousness: Although Simpson was, inevitably, acquitted in 1995 of the vicious killings of his former wife and her friend, most Americans now believe he was guilty of the crimes.
A potent measure of the lasting importance of any year lies in how profoundly its major events resonate. The watershed moments of 1995 reverberate still.
The attack at Oklahoma City was staggering in its toll, perplexing in its heartland setting (“Why there?” it was often asked), and carried out with no warning. Those elements contributed to a vague though enduring sense of insecurity in America, and the bombing marked the onset of unexpectedly dangerous times.
Indeed, the attack projected consequences felt long afterward, notably in the rise of preemptive security measures that would become ever tighter, and more conspicuous, after 1995. Oklahoma City was a turning point in domestic security and security precautions. As I wrote in 1995:
“The broad and lasting effects of the Oklahoma City bombing lie not in awakening Americans to the deadly threat of domestic terrorism, nor in exposing vulnerabilities of American life. The epiphany was not of that sort. Rather … the bombing at Oklahoma City signaled the rise of a more guarded, more suspicious, more security-inclined America, of what can be called ‘a national psychology of fear.’”
Striking evidence of the preemptive, security-first mindset emerged in Washington, D.C., just a month after the Murrah building’s destruction. Before dawn on May 20, 1995, authorities set up concrete barriers to detour vehicular traffic from two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue nearest the White House. The closure was ordered unilaterally, without notice or public debate. And it was permanent.
The capital turned bunker-like after April 1995. An architecture of defensiveness grew plainly visible, and the numerous barriers and steel gates lent a shabby and distrustful look to the heart of Washington. The Washington Post observed years later that it was the Oklahoma City bombing “that ended the capital’s life as an open city.”
The effects of the bombing went far beyond aesthetics in the capital. The attack revived anti-terrorism legislation that had been stalled in Congress. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 authorized the spending of $1 billion on counterterrorism initiatives; extended criminal penalties for terrorist acts; banned fundraising in support of terrorist organizations, and grant U.S. officials the power to deport non-citizens suspected of terrorism or supporting terrorism — and to do so while sharing little more than a summary of evidence against them.
Oklahoma City also re-exposed a flaw in American news media and their reporting of sudden and dramatic major events: A tendency to indulge in latent stereotypes and to get it badly wrong.
Swirling rumor congealed with extravagant conjecture in the hours after the bombing, and suspicions about perpetrators fell squarely if vaguely on Middle East terrorism. The news media rode that angle hard and erred memorably in doing so. Connie Chung, who then was in her final weeks as a CBS News anchor, declared in a report from Oklahoma City:
“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.”
On ABC News, the network’s national security correspondent, John McWethy, 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, anchor Frank Sesno declared: “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.”
Shock was thus considerable when, two days after the attack, McVeigh was arrested and brought briefly before television cameras . The suspected bomber was no foreigner. He was not from the Middle East.
He was lanky, white, and American.
A version of this essay first appeared at University of California Press blog
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