Analysis: “The McVeigh Tapes”

Tonight, MSNBC aired “The McVeigh Tapes,” a television documentary about the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  Lou Michel, author of American Terrorist, recorded the interviews with McVeigh while he was in prison awaiting execution. The description of the piece from MSNBC’s site says:

“Drawing from 45 hours of never-before-released interview audiotapes recorded during McVeigh’s prison stay, the film reveals the bomber’s descriptions of the planning and execution of the horrific attack and offers insight into how a decorated American soldier became a dangerous, anti-government terrorist.”

The show did much more of the former, focusing almost exclusively on “descriptions of the planning and execution of the horrific attack” and very little on “how a decorated American soldier” became a terrorist.  The 2-hour news show was a standard re-enactment of the events leading up to the attack.   There were two elements to the story that made it cable-television-worthy: 1) the audio tapes and 2) the computer graphics in which an actor played Tim McVeigh, and then graphic artists altered the face to look more or less like McVeigh.   Personally, I found the computer graphics distracting (my partner said “it’s working for me,” so clearly, people disagree on how effective these were).   The really compelling story at the heart of this, though, was the juxtaposition of McVeigh’s cold, emotionless voice recounting his actions set against the horrific damage done to the victims, many of them children.   People today in Oklahoma City continue to walk through the pain that he left in their lives, either through injuries that linger or through the grief they continue to carry for loved ones.   For his part, the McVeigh in the tapes is beyond remorseless, he’s “content and peaceful” that he has succeeded in carrying out his plot to take as many people with him as possible in his “state-assisted suicide.”

The events of April 19, 1995 are methodically retold here with little that’s actually new.  There is an enormous amount of detail on how they (McVeigh and his accomplice Nichols) built the bomb inside the rented Ryder truck, so much detail in fact, that I winced while listening to it wondering if it were offering a blueprint for others watching the show.  This reenactment is serviceable enough, as such things go, but not really compelling television.  The reason that I, and I suspect millions of others, tuned in was for the second part of the tease – the “how a decorated American soldier” became a terrorist bit.   This is where viewers with any interest in the racial ideology that motivated McVeigh will be disappointed because it is a story completely denuded of any discussion of race.

At the time of the bombing, Timothy McVeigh was not officially a member of any white supremacist group.  Yet, he was radicalized by his reading of The Turner Diaries, a dystopian white supremacist novel written by William Pierce under the pseudonym “Andrew McDonald.”  The Turner Diaries depicts a violent revolution and race war, that leads to the elimination of all Jews, non-whites and ‘white race traitors.’   In the week after the Oklahoma City bombing, an article in The New York Times called the novel “explicitly racist and anti-Semitic.”  The article in The New York Times went on to note that the Oklahoma City bombing had been “foretold” in this “Bible of the Extreme Right.” One of the central ideas in The Turner Diaries and in white supremacist ideology is the equivalency of “government” with “Jewish interests,” or simply “Jews.”    In fact, in this rhetoric the federal government is often referred to as “Z.O.G.” which stands for “Zionist Occupied Government.”  The language about “anti-government” in white supremacist rhetoric is almost always code for “anti-Jewish.”  A key theme in this racial ideology is that “Z.O.G.” is trying to ruin the white race by encouraging “race-mixing” (marriage and children across racial lines).

The importance of this text to McVeigh’s radicalization as a white supremacist terrorist cannot be underestimated.  According to reports at the time and from monitoring organization, ADL, in the days before the bombing, McVeigh mailed a letter to his sister warning that “something big is going to happen,” and sent her an envelop with clippings from The Turner Diaries. When she learned of her brother’s arrest in connection with the bombing, McVeigh’s sister burned the clippings.   F.B.I. agents also found a copy of a passage from The Turner Diaries in the car McVeigh drove on the day of the bombing.  And, during the bombing trial, several of McVeigh’s friends testified that he had sent them copies of Pierce’s novel with notes encouraging them to read it. Testimony also showed that McVeigh sold The Turner Diaries and Hunter, Pierce’s follow-up to The Turner Diaries, at weekend gun shows.  One of the chief reasons McVeigh went from being an American soldier to a terrorist is because he read The Turner Diaries.

So, if we viewers were interested in understanding “how a decorated American soldier” became a terrorist, it seems that at least some discussion of The Turner Diaries and the white supremacist ideology behind it would be in order.   Not so in “The McVeigh Tapes,” In the 2-hour show, there’s one glimpse of the computer-graphic-McVeigh sitting on his bunk while in the army reading a copy of The Turner Diaries, yet no mention at all of race or antisemitism or white supremacy.    All descriptors of McVeigh’s ideology are scripted as “his anti-government views,” a description that is misleading for the half-truth it tells.

This omission of any discussion of race is so systematic and total throughout the 2-hours of the film that it must be intentional.  The question is why?  Why intentionally leave out this important element in understanding how McVeigh became a terrorist?

The best answer I (and those in discussion on Twitter hashtag #OKC) came up with is that MSNBC has a primarily white audience that is uncomfortable with discussions of race, racism, antisemitism or white supremacy.  While perfectly capable of listening to a discussion about “anti-government views,” the explicit, straightforward discussion of the racial ideology that animated McVeigh and inspired his horrific act is too much for us as a nation.  As @Sonyers put this to me: “A lot of people don’t have the courage to see the reality of race. It’s ugly and powerful.” I guess that’s true.  It’s a shame though.  We could understand more if we had an analysis that included a critical understanding of race. Specifically, we could understand more – not less -if we had an analysis of the racial ideology of The Turner Diaries how it “foretold” the Oklahoma City bombing.

What “The McVeigh Tapes,” leaves us with is a description of the excruciating detail of each minute leading up to that moment on April 19th, 1995 but almost no analysis of what would prompt a young, white, man to target a federal building with a daycare center in it, or why so many would rally today, in 2010, to “celebrate” that heinous act fifteen years ago.


  1. parkbench

    Good analysis, Jessie, I just wanted to take issue with one thing, perhaps trivial, but also something that generally concerns me about critical analyses of media & culture.

    At one point in this post, after outlining McVeigh’s white supremacist credentials, you write that “One of the chief reasons McVeigh went from being an American soldier to a terrorist is because he read The Turner Diaries.”

    While I agree with the sentiment of this statement, what concerns me is the direct causal relationship made between the two events–that is, reading a book and committing an act of violence.

    While I don’t want to discount the radical existential transformations that do sometimes spring from a mediatic experience–like reading a book, seeing a movie, or what have you–I think this logic too easily slips into a kind of general populist discourse about the media today that is for the most part unhelpful.

    Let me clarify: the first hint to me that something might be up is that two very different kind of camps tend to marshal out the same kind of logic. In this social field I’m painting, we can make the players turgid in what they represent as archetypes: so let’s say you have conservative fundamentalists on the one side, and critical, perhaps ‘radical’ race theorists, activists, leftists, etc. on the other.

    A typical formula presented by the former as a case against not just media violence, but the portrayal of homosexuality in media, or indeed the very kind of careful attention to race that you are lamenting the lack of in this McVeigh documentary, is–simplified–that exposure to this material could “influence” viewers in some way and affect their lives negatively. A whole lot of assumptions that we are all very familiar with come into play here beyond the explicit ‘intolerance’ that these claims usually display–assumptions about the rights of the individual, notions of the role of the public/private, and so on, and these tend to also lead us down a slippery slope which begins to unproblematically evoke figures such as ‘children’ and/or ‘women’ (perhaps more specifically, ‘young girls) as the most affected by this social ill, which then leads to a whole host of OTHER assumptions about the apparent naivete of these groups and some kind of lack of agency to control their own lives. Which is why, we are then told, we need to ‘protect’ them.

    I think in this case it would be quite apropos for us to respond that this series of arguments is not so much about what they express ‘ideologically’ or ‘dogmatically,’ than the complex network of power relations, class, and racial privilege that they cover under a seemingly benign, humanistic concern for the well-being of others. And I think this would be a good response.

    And that brings me to this post. What is lost, I think, in saying “Timothy McVeigh did x because he read y,” is an even more subtle and careful analysis of the kinds of privilege he was operating on in his life both before and after he read the book–the specific place he found himself in spatially, temporally, historically, etc.

    That is to say, in a world, and specifically in a country, where white supremacy (not just as an ideology or movement but indeed as an underlying logic and propeller of the social/political field), remains trenchant, it could not be simply that his reading of The Turner Diaries led him to commit this awful act. And I think that this is for a very important, and not at all incidental, philosophical reason: because this would inadvertently imply a kind of deterministic relationship between reading this book and committing an act of violence, something we know statistically to be impossible given the amount of people who must have read it. Recall the example I offered earlier of “conservative fundamentalists”–this is the very same sort of reasoning that serves as the fulcrum for campaigns against certain videogames, movies, even people, on the basis of a perceived power to ‘turn’ people, as I think I can crudely put it.

    I am not–I repeat AM NOT–trying to make a relativistic argument that would somehow justify a libertine bohemianism, as I think some less careful critics, or even the Comedy Centrals of the world, often find themselves endorsing. I do not believe, that based on the argument I am making, that the answer is then to take a completely hands-off approach to everything, which amounts to a populist-libertarian kind of politics that imagines that the answer to the problem of censorship or hate is to have none of the former and let the latter reign free for lack of a better reason to fight it.

    No, I do not believe such things, and it is in fact my deep personal commitment to fighting racism, oppression, and ignorance that has led me to quibble about this phraseology in the first place. Because we, as thoughtful people, or perhaps simply people who write things, need to be very careful about the arguments we make, because we DO need to understand what is dangerous about a book like the Turner Diaries, and we DO need to understand what is wrong with the documentary you have analysed briefly in your post here, and there DO need to be laws that differentiate between hate crimes and other kinds of crimes, and so on.

    The question, for me, is where we focus our energies: analysing, deconstructing, and dismissing the Turner Diaries as ignorant racist bile is important, but if we don’t acknowledge that there were other factors, much more complicated factors, much more interconnected, widespread, and sometimes scarily invisible factors at work in Timothy McVeigh’s actions, then we are doing a disservice to ourselves AS ‘critics’. For again, not only must there be people who have read the book and not committed an act of violence, but there must also be people who have committed racist acts of violence without having read the book, as well as there must have been people who were racist and committed atrocious acts of terror before the book was ever published–which all point to the fact that there is something more to the book than its status *as a book*.

    I hope, I hope I hope, that I am not appearing condescending here. I think the existence of deeply-entrenched racism and its historical roots in our society is something you and the writers on this site are well aware of. But again, I will repeat that I think we cannot afford to slip in situations, in discussions like this one, because otherwise we open ourselves up to a whole range of problems and potential battles (with the right, for example) that we might have been able to avoid in the first place.

    I say all this only because I see a certain kind of cyclical trajectory to a lot of critical race theory that ends up exalting the true question of racial conflict and disparity in America today as whether or not “Precious,” or “Our Family Wedding”, or Thomas Friedman, or Glenn Beck is problematic. As I said!–Don’t get me wrong. These are battles that *need* to be fought, very much so, on some level. It would be foolish to imagine that we can ‘do without’ forceful and robust ripostes to the explicit signs and symbols and significations that appear, or rather crop-up throughout the social field we tend to call “culture.” If Thomas Friedman operates within a discourse, or if he himself is even a kind of discourse, there is no question that we need a counter-discourse to that Thomas Friedman.

    At the same time, we have to acknowledge always that these are simultaneously just INSTANCES of a larger force, a more intractable and frankly annoying tendency in American culture, that will never be solved even if we find ourselves one day somehow “winning” against any one of these things. We need complex strategies! And therefore complex analyses. What scares me about the model implicitly present in the “book->terrorism” formula is that it unintentionally reinscribes the primacy of the individual in our analysis, and makes the whole question of racism the particular ‘abnormality’ of McVeigh’s psyche, or in a similar argument, the book’s. Do not be fooled, these arguments are only a stone’s throw away from this kind of mechanistic employment of causality. What is at stake is much more disturbing, and it is precisely this disturbance, this uncomfortable and unnameable force that nevertheless MUST BE NAMED, as you have pointed out.

    In the end, I think you, and your co-workers, have time and time again done an admirable job of ‘naming’ that force, of putting race & racism to the forefront in exactly the way I am righteously outlining. And even this post, as I alluded to in the beginning, is, as far as I’m concerned, essentially spot-on. But I try to use these moments to bring up larger questions which I feel are often bypassed in radical critique (another pet peeve of mine, for example, is the casual use of the word “activist” when describing the activities of members of al-Qaeda–there must be a distinction!).

    Lastly, I think another thing that is often overlooked in this model of book->terrorism, is the possibility that one could read such a book and “come out the other side,” in a sense. That one could actually lead a life in which one was entrenched in white supremacist thought and ideology that then CHANGED and actually moved on to contemplate and care about other things–is completely disallowed, as apparently, this book holds a mystical power beyond human comprehension that is in the last analysis irresistible. And I think we need to dial down the primacy of the mediatic work in ‘turning’ people, as if ideology just hits people in the face, precisely so that we can give THEM a little credit as human beings. Because if we don’t, the answer, in the end, will always be more or less of a ‘wishing away’ of their whole existence, and if you have ever led a life you aren’t proud of, you will know that what I’m saying is true–that if I didn’t know that I could be given a ‘second chance,’ in that sense, then there would be no hope for me or for anyone else. Giving people the potential to exist beyond the confines of whatever ideology supposedly confines them is not only a ‘nice thing to do,’ it actually leads to more creative, more thoughtful, and in my opinion, more effective tactics in activists that have more long-lasting effects on people than otherwise.

    Well! Perhaps it is late and that was a load of nonsense. But also I hope that something came out of it in the process.

    A loyal reader and fan,
    ~alex cg

  2. Jessie Author

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment alex, and for de-lurking. 🙂 You make an excellent point when you say:
    “What is lost, I think, in saying “Timothy McVeigh did x because he read y,” is an even more subtle and careful analysis of the kinds of privilege he was operating on in his life both before and after he read the book–the specific place he found himself in spatially, temporally, historically, etc.”

    I completely agree. I may have oversimplified things in the original post because I was trying emphasize the importance, indeed the centrality, of the TD in McVeigh’s own justification for his actions – and the MSNBC show’s utter lack of acknowledgment of this fact. But, you’re right, there’s another, much more nuanced analysis of McVeigh – not least of which is his experience of threatened masculinity as a skinny boy who was mercilessly teased by other boys – that includes his position within a system of white, male, heterosexual privilege.
    The other point to emphasize, related to your comment, is that you’re absolutely correct about the multiple and resistive reads that people can bring to a text. So, it’s quite possible, as you suggest to read the TD and come out with an oppositional stance to white supremacist ideology. Again, I wish that the producers of the show had told us something about who introduced McVeigh to the TD book. Typically, as you no doubt know, social movement organization recruitment works in just that fashion: there is a personal, face-to-face connection and then movement literature follows that. New recruits into a movement read the literature in a process of self-indoctrination. (Points I make in some detail in both my books.) One of the interesting points about McVeigh from the ADL link I posted above – is that he was acting as a kind of recruiter to family and friends by passing along the TD and urging them to read it.
    So, yes, while it’s far too simplistic to suggest that McVeigh read the TD book and then the OKC bombing happened, I’d argue that it’s a more egregious omission to leave out any analysis of the ideology contained in the Turner Diaries, as MSNBC did.

  3. parkbench

    Whoa, thanks for the speedy reply, Jessie!

    Just wanted to say that I’m glad you re-emphasised the importance of McVeigh himself being a ‘circulatory node’ of sorts for the literature.

    That adds an interesting element to the equation that I think brings to the forefront even more strikingly the concerns I was originally expressing–that in addition to a whole complex analysis to be made of the types of power invested in McVeigh as a person and as a member of both his own community and an essentially racist (in the biopolitical sense, let’s say, if not in the overt sense) country/world, there is an even more granular analysis of a certain “microphysics of power” (as foucault would say) that is called for.

    That is to say, what was the nature of his positionality, precisely, as a vector in those power relations who was not just unconsciously (in his being, in his comportment, in his constitutive relationship with the world around him) or even ‘relationally’ (in the sense of making his views known, let’s say, or of convincing others, or of being a member of certain organisations which espoused racist ideologies) perpetuating and reinforcing the sprawling trellis of privilege/power from which he was formed, but as a vector that was indeed engaged in *active re-circulation*–a consciously tactical and political, rather than benignly social, approach to resolving the dilemmas he believed to be the most important in life? As a proto-, or lay-capitalist, even, peddling the ideology in the less-threatening informality of a gun show?

    There’s a whole lot going on there that I’d love to waste the day away thinking about.


    Looking forward to a long-lasting rapport,
    ~alex cg


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