I was in the sixth grade when the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed. I was a little too young to be fully aware of Waco, Ruby Ridge, or the first World Trade Center attack, and, as an army brat, while the first Gulf War affected my family personally, I only really saw it as something that might take my father from me.
So the 1995 terrorist attack was the first real event that captured my interest – and not least because I grew up in Oklahoma.
But the intervening 23 years has left this event largely forgotten, subsumed under the weight of 9/11, the Bush administration, and other (more recent) events. The 90s seem so pristine and civilized, don’t they? Oral sex, the rise of the internet, and Y2K seem so quaint, now.
I thought I had a pretty solid understanding of what happened on April 19, 1995. Timothy McVeigh, a gun toting anti-government white nationalist and army veteran thought he’d start a revolution by bombing a federal building as a response to the murder of civilians, by the ATF and FBI, at Ruby Ridge and Waco. How the murder of other civilians (whom he called “collateral damage”), including 19 children and infants, would cause a national uprising against the federal government was left unexplained. He was caught, along with a co-conspirator named Terry Nichols, and sentenced to death in what seemed like relatively short order. It all seemed clean and easy.
Life, as it often is, turned out to be far messier.
The investigation was mishandled in so many ways. FEMA, for starters, attempted to take over rescue efforts and that turned out like it almost always does: disaster. FEMA got in a passive-aggressive war with emergency personnel over command of rescue efforts, charging for the use of equipment and even attempting to halt recovery so that cameras could be installed in the rubble. This book was very critical of FEMA, the FBI, and their response both to the disaster and to the investigation. How fair that is, I don’t feel qualified to say, but the criticisms seem pretty damning – which is surprising given how little criticisms have made national headlines. Compare this disaster to Katrina or Hurricane Maria, for instance, and no one no one is talking about it.
Looking back, it’s sometimes hard to remember how widely Bill Clinton was praised during his presidency. Get passed the Republican hysteria over his sex life, he was incredibly popular throughout his terms in office, and he came to the presidency in 1992 on a wave of youth, vitality, and populist centrism. Almost immediately after taking office, the World Trade Center was bombed. His response was to steer clear and treat it as a police matter. Shortly thereafter, the siege of the Branch Dividian compound in Waco, Texas led to the deaths of 82 civilians and significant criticisms of Janet Reno, the Clinton administration, the ATF, and the federal government.
Following those events, and the disaster of the Ruby Ridge siege in 1992, the government became leery of actively engaging dissident groups. They became gun shy. What I didn’t know, prior to reading this book, was that the government had also investigated the Christian Identity, right wing extremist group centered in Elohim City, Oklahoma, and failed to prosecute them throughout the 80s and early 90s. The FBI also failed to prosecute CISPES (Commitee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) in the early 1980s for funding leftist terrorism.
All these failures produced a tentative and gun shy agency that was reluctant to go after extremist domestic groups. Into this mix came Timothy McVeigh.
Gumbel and Charles use this context to criticize the FBI for not fully exploring the connections McVeigh and Nichols had to the militia movement, and the possibility that there are more people involved in the planning and funding of the bombing. And, in all honesty, despite my initial trepidation at the argument, I think they convincingly portray the investigation as insufficient to rule out a larger network. It really does seem as though more people may have been involved in the Oklahoma City bombing, and the FBI simply didn’t follow up on enough leads.
Which is disconcerting considering most of the people potentially involved are still walking around today, free from ever having been investigated thoroughly.
And while it seems, in a post-9/11 America, that any domestic terror group would be fully investigated, remember that many of the terrorist attacks over the last several years were by people on the radar of government agencies. And when modern militia members are taking over public buildings and threatening the peace without much consequence, it’s easy to see that there may still be room for improvement when it comes to preventing these movements from gaining traction. But, that the Bundy stand-off in 2014 didn’t end in gunfire maybe shows that the right lessons were learned in how to handle this brand of discontent.
In any case, this was a good and informative read, even if the author’s seem to have an axe to grind. They did a good job of presenting the information in a way that seemed fair and informed.