1995: The year the future began
To its credit, the “American Experience” documentary airing tomorrow night on PBS about the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing has little patience with extravagant and bizarre conspiracy theories that have flourished since the deadliest attack of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.
The truck-bombing that destroyed the Murrah federal building and killed 168 people was the work of Timothy McVeigh, a disillusioned, 26-year-old Army veteran who nursed grudges and dark suspicions about the federal government.
As the PBS documentary makes clear, McVeigh was the prime mover in the attack. He had help in building the bomb from an Army buddy, Terry Nichols. Another Army buddy, Michael Fortier, was aware of McVeigh’s plans.
But that, as I maintain in my book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, was the extent of a rag-tag plot. Confidence in saying so is high because of the calling card records meticulously pieced together after the attack: They traced, almost in diary-like fashion, McVeigh’s moves in preparing and planning the bombing.
The calling records signaled no wider conspiracy (although McVeigh’s defense lawyer tried, with scant success, to push the implausible notion of a vast, unwieldy international plot that stretched from Oklahoma City to the Philippines to the Middle East, and elsewhere).
The PBS documentary, simply titled “Oklahoma City,” proposes a theory of another sort, that McVeigh was the violent spawn of the strutting, gun-loving, radical right-wing groups that popped up in scattered places in the 1980s and ’90s.
It’s a tempting theory, given that McVeigh hated the federal government and loved firearms. But the theory is misaligned with McVeigh’s biography.
McVeigh essentially was a troubled and disillusioned loner, an Army veteran turned lone-wolf terrorist whose attack on the Murrah building came without warning on April 19, 1995. Among the victims were 19 children.
McVeigh was enraged by federal law-enforcement tactics in deadly confrontations in 1992 with a family of white separatists at Ruby Ridge in remote northern Idaho, and in 1993 with the Branch Davidian religious cult near Waco, Texas.
The PBS documentary takes extended detours from Oklahoma City to explore the encounters at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and to examine elements of the disparate, underground extremist and militia movements.
The effect is to suggest that those incidents, and those extremist groups, produced McVeigh and led to the Oklahoma City bombing.
That’s not exactly the case.
As Dan Herbeck, one of McVeigh’s biographers, makes clear during the closing half of the 100-minute documentary:
“Tim McVeigh didn’t actually belong to a militia group. But he certainly had the same opinions about the government that many of the militia groups had.”
The distinction is important, and vital to understanding what drove the bombing’s main actor.
McVeigh was exposed to extremist groups and their rhetoric in visiting gun shows following his discharge from the Army in December 1991. Herbeck and co-author Lou Michel wrote in American Terrorist, their well-researched biography of McVeigh:
“Although he never aligned himself with the stranger elements of the gun culture, McVeigh was always interested in listening. Every new show was a chance to meet new people who shared his views, to pick up on the latest rumors about the government. … McVeigh thrived on the us-against-them spirit of the gun shows.”
Gun-show enthusiast, of course, does not necessarily equate to extremist group follower. And in McVeigh’s case, it didn’t.
Even so, the documentary-makers gave the last word on the subject — the misleading last word — not to Herbeck or Michel but to Leonard Zeskind, who has written and lectured extensively about white supremacists but who is not recognized as a leading authority about the Oklahoma City attack.
Zeskind seemed about to lift out of his chair in saying, on camera:
“There was no massive conspiracy [in the Oklahoma City bombing]. That much is clear. But the idea that Timothy McVeigh was a lone killer is wrong-headed because it absolves the movement from which it all sprang.
“Timothy McVeigh was not on his own. He was the creation of the white supremacist movement. He carried the Turner Diaries [an extremist screed that envisioned blowing up FBI headquarters] around and he read it to people. He lived at gun shows. He met neo-Nazis and visited with them. He was part of this movement. And the idea that there was no connection between the white supremacist movement and the events in Oklahoma City is patently false. The was a strong connection. And it was a deep connection.”
Except Zeskind’s rhetoric doesn’t match what is known about McVeigh; his connections to extremist groups, including white separatists, were vague and distant.
He neither belonged to, nor spent much time with, any such group. He may have been a kindred spirit, but McVeigh, who was executed for his crimes, was not a member, not a leader.
Instead of pushing hard on such vague and marginal connections, the documentary might well have assembled a stronger case that a broken home life, and distressing combat experience, propelled McVeigh on a course to lone-wolf terrorism.
The fiery encounter at the Branch Davidian compound in Texas may have been a tipping point in McVeigh’s turn to anti-government violence. But McVeigh was troubled well before 1993. Herbeck and Michel wrote in their book that the broken marriage of McVeigh’s parents during his childhood, and his later experiences killing enemy soldiers during the 1990-91 Gulf War, brought turmoil to McVeigh’s life.
Even though it pushes too hard on vague and distant connections to extremist groups, the PBS documentary does offer a powerful reminder about the death and destruction that McVeigh dealt 22 years ago to a proud and welcoming city. And one of the documentary’s most important contributions lies in addressing the notion of McVeigh’s mystery accomplice, known to the world as “John Doe No. 2.”
As I noted in 1995, the shadowy “John Doe No. 2,” if he existed, would represent evidence that the bombing conspiracy was wider than McVeigh and two Army buddies.
“John Doe No. 2” took on life in the composite sketches of an FBI artist. The sketches were drawn from recollections of a mechanic at a Kansas body shop where McVeigh rented the truck into which he built his bomb.
The mechanic thought “John Doe No. 2” had been with McVeigh at the time of the rental. But it’s more likely that “John Doe No. 2” was an Army private who, wearing civilian clothes, was at the body shop the day after McVeigh was there — and had nothing to do with the bomber or the bombing.
The documentary showed the sketch side-by-side with a photograph of the former Army private in civilian clothes (see screenshot nearby), and the likelihood of the mechanic’s mistaken recollection seems quite probable.
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