The P. Murrah Federal building was targeted by one or two U.S. terrorists who had a grudge against the Federal government.
On the morning of April 19, 1995, a gigantic bomb went off at the entrance to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. A red and orange fireball shot upward, a deep crater appeared beneath the entrance, and all over the building slabs of glass and concrete crashed down. Ten buildings within a three-block radius almost collapsed and hundreds of others were damaged. The blast was felt forty miles away. One hundred and sixty-eight were killed and five hundred injured.
On the April 17, 1993, a man who had earlier booked a truck by telephone, picked up the Ryder truck that could carry five thousand pounds. He made a $150 deposit on the car, gave a false name, provided a wrong home address, and gave another person’s driver’s license, then left with the truck. The bomb materials were assembled and placed on the truck next day. Early on the morning of the nineteenth, the same day of the same month as the Waco conflagration, he drove the truck into Oklahoma. He had previously left his Mercury car a short distance from the scene of the crime. He lit the fuse before parking outside the Murrah Building and then, having locked the truck door, ran to his Mercury.
The explosion hurled everything nearby into the air. In the Murrah Building there was double destruction, floors being thrust upward by the force of the blast and higher floors collapsing as the building’s foundations were cut away. On the seventh floor, fifty people were instantly crushed to death while another twenty met a similar fate on the fourth floor. It was a comparable story on all the other floors. Saddest of all was the instant destruction of a day-care center on the second floor where there were fifteen children and three teachers. That floor took the full force of the bomb. Human remains from it were found a block away.
Twenty-four bystanders near the building were killed instantly. Survivors staggered from the ruins of the Murrah Building, some half-naked because shoes and clothing had been ripped off. Their wounds were evident and they were bleeding either because of cuts or through walking over broken glass. Blood, dust, plaster, and concrete littered the ground and filled the cavity below ground created by the bomb. Hundreds of people were running around outside, screaming as they burned to death or tried to cope with the pieces of glass embedded in their faces and hands.
Relief efforts came together in large numbers. Everyone who could get near the scene of destruction helped. More than five hundred had been injured and the number dead would not be known for a few days because of the amount and weight of rubble. Family members brought dental and other records to help with identification. Often the shattered state of their children’s bodies made visual recognition impossible. Every doctor in Oklahoma City was on hand to do whatever could be done. Blood was in short supply because so many had been pierced with glass and were bleeding badly. One man had more than a hundred deep cuts from glass.
Cranes and bulldozers were busy moving concrete slabs out of the way in order to rescue whoever might still be alive below. Sophisticated listening devices also assisted in finding people. There were dogs specially trained to sniff out victims, some of them specially trained to sniff out babies who have a scent that is different from that of adults. This special dog resource had a poignant appeal here because of the large number of infants and young children who had been in the building. The search went on through the night and on into the next day. When a final death count was reached it was 168 and it included 19 very young children. Five hundred others were injured.
Suspicion universally focused on Islamic extremists. The World Trade Center bombing of 1993 was still fresh in people’s minds (see New York City, New York, terrorism) as well as earlier acts of violence by the same people. Every media outlet and all comments from political leaders declared that the criminals must have come from abroad. Violence at this scale in heartland America could not happen, it was said, unless it was inspired by the same mindset that blew Pam Am 103 out of the sky in 1988 (see Munich, Germany, terrorism). One congressman went so far as to say that there was clear evidence that fundamentalist Islamic terrorists were involved. People from the Middle East who happened to be in the United States or who had come from there but were now U.S. citizens were under suspicion and some were taken in for questioning. In spite of vehement denials from Muslim groups all over the world, there persisted the sad spectacle of a whole ethnic group being held suspect without a single bit of supporting evidence.
Some reflection on recent events, even the date of the disaster, might have alerted authorities to another possibility. Several had been disturbed by the tragedies at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and Waco in 1993 and felt they should avenge what they considered to be indefensible violence on the part of the U.S. government. These were people who do not subscribe to the democratic ethic of majority rule. They are few in number but in an age that gives enormous power to the individual they can be very dangerous. The terrorist and mass murderer who was responsible for this worst terrorist act in American history was one of them. He was an American and his name was Timothy McVeigh.
The media usually take note of people like McVeigh only when some- thing bad happens. There are people like him who are violently opposed to the law of the land because it gives rights to homosexuals and permits abortions. Others have racist views, hating blacks and Jews, while yet another group feels justified in taking violent action against established authority on the basis of some kind of Christian faith, or just because they disagree with a particular action. Warnings about the dangers posed by these extremist groups and individuals have largely been ignored, partly because the victims were few and partly because their terrorist actions had not caused extensive damage.
The bombing of the Murrah Building changed all that. If one individual could do this much damage, then the potential for major destruction lay within the reach of a small number of extremists. For many years federal authorities were fully aware of the existence of these outlaws, but they only made contact with them when they had to. For their part, these extremists were largely inactive. They lived away from the main centers of population and trained their people in the use of firearms.
In searching for the perpetrators of major disasters, FBI officials know that their acts usually leave a trail. Everyone and everything at the scene of the bombing was scrutinized. Within a day these officials had identified the identification number and place of origin of the truck that carried the more than 1,000 gallons of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel. They went to the place where the truck had been rented. Other details followed quickly. In small-town Oklahoma, outside the main cities, everyone knows everyone else and unusual behaviors or new visitors are noted. One of the first discoveries came at an army and navy store where the clerk, recognizing the police sketch that was by now being circulated, told about selling the book, Improvised Munitions Handbook, to a young man who looked just like the one in the police sketch.
As already noted, Timothy McVeigh quickly left the Murrah Building after lighting the fuse and drove away in his car. Racing northwards in his Mercury, McVeigh was stopped by a highway patrolman who noticed that a license plate was missing. This had nothing to do with the bomb because no news of the tragedy had yet been circulated but, as the patrolman examined the inside of the car, he saw several guns and a knife. He checked via his cell phone and found that the statements he was given about car ownership were false. McVeigh was booked into jail at Perry, about fifty miles north of Oklahoma City, awaiting the hearing of his case. By the time he came before a judge the FBI had tracked him down and found out where he was.
Timothy McVeigh was born in Lockport, New York, in 1968 and spent his early years, including graduation from high school, in or near that city. After he left school friends noticed that he was becoming more and more of a loner. He dropped out of a business college where he had been taking a course on computers, he seemed unable to befriend girls, and he was upset over his parents’ divorce. An interest in guns developed and this interest remained strong as McVeigh grew older. At the age of twenty, on the spur of the moment, he decided to join the U.S. Army. He drove to Buffalo and signed up for a three-year stint.
At Fort Benning, Georgia, during basic training, McVeigh met Terry Nichols, a man who was ten years older and was, like McVeigh a loner who had joined the army because he had nothing else to do. They became very good friends and both moved to Fort Riley, Kansas, after training, to await their next assignment. McVeigh was ecstatic about army life. He was now part of a mechanized infantry unit which had Bradley armored tanks. He signed on for another three years and was promoted to sergeant shortly afterward. In the six months of basic training and then at Fort Riley, McVeigh also acquired through Nichols, a copy of a book, The Turner Diaries, which carried a strong condemnation of the Federal government for advocating gun control.
December of 1990 saw McVeigh off to Operation Desert Storm with his unit. Two months later McVeigh was sitting in the gunner’s seat of his Bradley tank as the unit made one of the first drives into Kuwait. The attack involved rolling over trenches in which thousands of Iraqis had taken up positions, suffocating the soldiers in the process and shooting up the artillery bunkers behind them. McVeigh’s accuracy was already well known and he excelled in this environment. He destroyed an Iraqi vehicle a hundred yards away, killed individual soldiers at half a mile range and, with one blast, smashed an Iraqi gun nest that was more than a mile away from him. For that action he was later awarded a Bronze Star for valor. He also received other decorations.
As he returned home with all the others after the brief war, McVeigh was surprised to find his name listed as a candidate for the army’s elite Special Forces, the Green Berets. He had dreamed of this for years but was afraid his physical condition was too poor for him to go into training right away. He was right. He failed the course within a couple of days and was once more back with the other losers at Fort Riley. A post-war hangover set in, not unlike that experienced by other soldiers. In McVeigh’s case, his memories of the Turner Diaries and other publications hardened into a paranoia about guns. He attacked the National Rifle Association for softening its stand against gun control and copied on to a sweatshirt some words from a magazine: “Freedom’s Last Stand—Are you willing to fight for your guns.”
At the end of 1991 McVeigh left the army and went back to Lockport where he got a job with a security company. He wrote letters to his hometown paper, all with the common theme of national evil. The following three sentences were typical of his letters: America is in serious decline. Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn’t come to that but it might. McVeigh became increasingly reclusive and his letters eventually stopped. In the succeeding two years there were two events that dominated the news and focused his thinking about what he should do. These were the events at Ruby Ridge and David Koresh’s compound in Waco. For the second time in his life McVeigh had found something to which he felt he could completely give himself.
The conflict at Ruby Ridge on August 22,1992, on a remote site in northern Idaho was a week-long standoff between white supremacist Randy Weaver and federal agents. It ended in a shootout in which an FBI sniper shot and killed Weaver’s wife, Vicky. Earlier, when federal marshals tried to arrest Weaver for failing to appear in court on weapons charges a gun battle erupted between marshals and Weaver’s fourteen-year-old son, resulting in two deaths—Weaver’s son and a marshal. There followed some severe criticism by the Attorney-General’s Department of the way the marshals behaved, concluding that they had overreacted to the threat of violence. The Department felt that the four deaths need not have happened.
The fiery ending to David Koresh’s complex in Waco on April 19, 1993, was the other event. McVeigh was convinced that injustice had been done and he was determined to do something about it. He knew that there had been criticism of government action in both events and he conveniently magnified the criticism into outright condemnation. The ending of the complex at Waco happened on April 19, 1993. The Oklahoma City devastation took place on April 19, 1995. That was no coincidence.
For the two years following the Waco event, McVeigh’s mind was focused on one thing only, finding a suitable target to bomb and planning its destruction. He traveled a lot hoping to find support for his plan but, as was the case during his army stint, he was too much of a loner to develop strong friendships. Terry Nichols was the only contact he retained from the days of the Gulf War. One old newspaper article from an extremist group came into his hands. It recommended bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and this idea stuck with him. Another old extremist publication clinched the idea when it outlined the value, for public impact, of careful timing any reprisal. It suggested choosing a date exactly two years after the tragedy you want to revenge. The issues of what to do and when to act were now crystal clear in McVeigh’s twisted mind.
Activity speeded up on April 14, 1995. McVeigh rented a motel some distance north of Oklahoma City and pressured Terry Nichols, who lived nearby, to allow the bomb materials to be stored in his basement, threatening to harm his family if he did not cooperate. Over the following two or three days, McVeigh purchased large quantities of diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate from different locations. He had purchased a large quantity of these same materials on a previous occasion and left them in a nearby storage locker. These were now brought to the Nichols home. Then, on the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth of April, as already recounted, the bomb-loaded truck was taken to Oklahoma City and detonated.
McVeigh was found guilty and executed on June 11, 2001. Before his death he gave an extensive interview to two news reporters from The Buffalo News who subsequently wrote a book on the crime, American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing. In the interview he expressed no regrets for what he had done. He felt no sympathy for the people of Oklahoma City and his only disappointment over the deaths of children was that they became a public relations nightmare which undercut his cause. The huge loss of life and many injuries were to him just collateral damage. He spoke at length about his anger over the events at Ruby Ridge and Waco. Terry Nichols was later imprisoned as an accomplice but was not given the death penalty.
The bombing of the Murrah Building goes beyond just remembering and reflecting on the past. It is an illustration of the enormous power for harm that is now available to individuals and of the different ways in which they can use this power to paralyze a society. No longer can the few extremists within our society be ignored. Not everyone agrees that McVeigh was a terrorist. Gore Vidal and others, while not condoning what was done, insist that we must give more thought to individual rights. The rest of the Murrah Building was demolished after the bombing and national services were held to commemorate the tragedy. Today a huge memorial stands where the building once stood, a silent reminder of the nation’s worst ever domestic terrorist attack. People from all over the country visit the site daily.
On February 28, 1993, heavily-armed agents of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) tried to serve a search-and-arrest warrant on David Koresh’s Branch Davidian headquarters in Waco, Texas. A serious gunfight erupted, several were killed, and the agents had to withdraw. A siege ensued which went on for fifty-one days and ended in a conflagration which killed eighty.
David Koresh was the leader of the Branch Davidians, a religious sect that had broken away from the main Seventh Day Adventists organization. There had been three other leaders of this sect before him and they too had exhibited apocalyptic views like those of Koresh, in one case expecting the world to come to an end in 1959. These views were in keeping with some aspects of the parent church, the Seventh Day Adventists, which was embedded in Old Testament ideas. Their name, for example, was derived from the Old Testament Jewish Sabbath, present-day Saturday, which this sect felt was the correct day of rest and not Sunday, the one commonly accepted by most Christian churches.
Koresh’s birth name was Vernon Howell and at the age of twenty-five he joined the Branch Davidian sect. Before long he found himself engaged in a power struggle with Benjamin Roden, the then leader, a conflict that ended with Howell and some of his friends killing the leader in a shoot out. They were convicted of murder but later acquitted. As he took control, Howell changed his name to David Koresh, again because of some significance in Jewish history. From that moment on there was a big change. The religious sect became a cult; that is, a group of people totally controlled by one person. He traveled to different countries, recruiting members as he went, and expanding the size of the compound at Waco, Texas.
At the same time he built up through constant teaching his apocalyptic views that there would inevitably be a colossal confrontation between the true people, his followers, and all the rest, the outside unbelievers. According to Koresh, he alone knew the truth. He was the one prophet appointed by God to teach the truth and prepare his followers for the end catastrophe and to this end he stocked the compound with guns and food reserves. Cult leaders like Koresh usually have attractive personalities with the ability to persuade others that they have unique knowledge and status. They succeed in securing absolute control over the lives of their followers, making them do things that most people would immediately recognize as absurd. The following examples will illustrate the nature of Koresh’s power over the hundred or more of his followers in Waco.
Each member willingly gave up all personal wealth and possessions and these resources supported the place. All decisions of any consequence were made by Koresh alone and these included rationing food for all from time to time either as a tool of control or of discipline. Food was vegetarian except for the leader who was entitled to meat and some other things. No one, again except the leader, had access to television, and no birthdays were ever celebrated. Perhaps the most bizarre of all the community’s mores were the sexual rules. Only Koresh could father children because he alone had the pure line of descent. He freely engaged sexually with any and all of the women and girls in the compound, fathering numerous children. Some of the girls with whom he had intercourse were as young as eleven. He had the sexual rights of women who were married while their husbands along with all the other males lived a life of celibacy.
As long as the Waco compound carried on its religious activities without offending the laws of the land, the government did not interfere. Early in February of 1993 reports reached the federal government that Koresh’s people were in possession of illegal firearms and that they were modifying automatic rifles, turning them into machine guns. Koresh was now thirty-four years old. A search and arrest warrant was issued and on February 28 members of the ATF attempted to serve it. What happened next is not clear. Gunfire broke out as the ATF men approached the building. Four were killed and fourteen others wounded and the whole event ended in a standoff.
It was clear that, whoever was responsible for the shooting, Koresh’s followers were quite prepared to use deadly force to oppose uninvited intruders. The FBI was brought in and a siege was initiated. For the following fifty-one days the siege went on but with little progress on the business of the search warrant. Throughout this time there was no gunfire of any kind from the FBI side and only occasional shots from inside the compound. A team of negotiators was brought in and discussions began with representatives of Koresh. Initially, the negotiations seemed to be very promising.
Within the first few days a plan was agreed upon. If the FBI would arrange to have one of Koresh’s sermons broadcast on a particular radio station he would release two children on the following day. The tape was duly broadcast and two children were released on the following day. Their mother brought them out, then she retreated back into the compound. The same routine was repeated on the following day and again two children were released. This was repeated about ten times in all, ensuring freedom for some twenty children. There followed a pause in these cycles of broadcast and release.
All through this initial period of time it was clear to the negotiators that Koresh’s interest was the conversion of those he dealt with. Those who spoke with his representatives were often subjected to long harangues on his theory of religion. Perhaps he felt he was having some success because on one day he offered to surrender if one more of his tapes were broadcast. The day following, instead of surrendering, he told those outside that he had to wait before making a decision. The surrender offer was never repeated. Instead, he showed intense interest in news of a very bright star that had been seen, but afterward concluded that it was not the right sign.
Specialists who examined the letters he sent out from time to time concluded that he was a religious fanatic with delusions of grandeur, imaging himself as the third person of the trinity along with Jesus and God, he being the prophet through whom God speaks. Koresh was charismatic and manipulative, able to hold people within the compound even if they had opportunity to leave. His statements contradicted what was heard from many in the compound, namely that a suicide pact was in place. If violence came from outside and they were unable to repel it, they would blow everything up as a demonstration of Koresh’s apocalyptic theology, the inevitable clash between the good ones within and the devils without.
The compound was stocked with a year’s supply of food and any requests for additional things like milk were met. The problem confronting the federal authorities was how to end the standoff. After fifty days of recurring episodes of cat and mouse operations, concessions followed by withdrawals, the basic situation was unchanged. Koresh was defying a federal arrest warrant and he had to be taken into custody. How could it be done without causing a repeat of the deaths that accompanied the visit of the ATF men? An indefinite siege was just not realistic. It would make a mockery of law and order and it would give Koresh exactly what he wanted, extended national publicity.
It was decided to pump tear gas into the building and force people out whether or not they felt free to leave. At the same time, bulldozers were to approach the building and create escape holes in several places. Immediately after the federal action began, fires erupted in a few places within the building, leading quickly to a massive conflagration. A few were able to run out. Most of the people remained inside. When the premises were searched next day a substantial number of bodies were found to have bullet wounds. Many of them were children. Koresh had been shot through his forehead. The FBI concluded that the fires that destroyed the building had been set by persons within the compound.
Not everyone was satisfied with the federal conclusions about the conflagration. There were claims that the high level of military force present intimidated those in the compound and inhibited negotiations. Later, in 1993, some of the survivors sued the federal government for $700 million but lost. The case was held in a Texas court near Waco and the jury found the U.S. government not liable for the deaths. Criticism persisted in spite of that verdict and Senator Danforth of the U.S. Senate was asked to conduct a thorough review of all the actions taken. In his report he concurred with the Texas court.
As is now well known the government actions at Waco were not quickly forgotten. Terrorist behavior in Oklahoma City two years later to the day was one of the tragic outcomes. It seems there is common ground between the radical right, the armed militia who claim that their freedom is being destroyed by the requirements of the law, and the religious fanatics. These latter are the ones who claim that they do not have to obey the law because they have an alternative law in the one they call God. The answer to this kind of social unrest demands a continuing assessment both of these extremists and the government responses to their behavior.