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.

Programming Alert: The McVeigh Tapes

If you’re following the news about the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, you’ve no doubt heard about the MSNBC documentary, “The McVeigh Tapes.” If not, here’s a little info about it.   It’s a film based on audio tapes with McVeigh and then a combination of an actor and computer graphics re-enacting the events of April 19th.   It’s narrated by MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow.   It airs tonight at 9 ET/PT and at 8 CT.

I’ll watch the show as it airs and post live updates to Twitter.  You can follow me there at: @JessieNYC.   After the show, I’ll do a recap and compile comments in a post here.

Oklahoma City Bombing: Reflections on the 15th Anniversary

April 19th marks the 15th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.   It was, until the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the worst terrorist attack in United States history.  Timothy McVeigh was convicted, and ultimately put to death, for this crime which he described as motivated by a deep antipathy for the federal government because of the events at Waco and by his reading of The Turner Diaries, a white supremacist dystopian novel.

Literally thousands of extremists from around the country, many of them armed, plan to march in the capital and in Virginia to “celebrate” the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.   In fact, white supremacists, white nationalists and assorted militia groups have a whole roster of events scheduled for today, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), including:

  • Longtime Georgia militia organizer Jim Stachowiak reportedly has called on his fellow militiamen to discharge their weapons at midnight, thereby causing a flood of citizens to call 911 and overload emergency services.
  • Members of the Patriot movement, for whom the specter of gun restrictions is a recurring theme, will join gun rights advocates for a “Second Amendment March” in Washington, D.C. Speakers will include: Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers, a conspiracy-minded, antigovernment organization composed mostly of active-duty police and military officers and veterans.
  • An open-carry rally to “Restore the Constitution” will be held at Ft. Hunt National Park near Mount Vernon, Va. Designated a “call to muster,” those rallying want the federal government to know that they “will not be ignored anymore.” Daniel Almond, who believes the federal government is “bringing totalitarian socialism to America” and is a member of the Georgia chapter of the Oath Keepers, organized the event.

These types of “celebrations” are, of course, a threat to democratic society because they valorize a lawlessness.  They also demonstrate a remarkably callous disregard for the continuing impact of the bombing on the victims that survived, many of them toddler in the day care that operated in the building. Of the 168 people killed in the attack, 19 were children in that day care center.  Incredibly, 6 children survived and are now teenagers and young adults.  Here are a few of their stories, from CNN:

P.J. Allen, now 16, was 18 months old when the bomb brought the building down on top of him, forcing him to inhale hot air and smoke.   …. Brother and sister Brandon and Rebecca Denny were hurt in the attack, although it was the older brother who received the more permanent injuries.   … While then 2-year-old Rebecca Denny required 240 stitches to patch her up, her brother — then 3 — suffered severe brain injuries, leaving the right side of his body weak.  …. Chris Nguyen, now a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma in nearby Norman.  “I’ve been given like a gift, you might say, and if I don’t make something of my life to succeed and make a difference of some kind, then I would have wasted my life,” Nguyen said.   “I think about the other parents — all the other day care children and families — who’ve lost someone … but I feel guilty almost that Brandon, Rebecca, P.J. and I, we get to live our lives … and the other people, they don’t get that opportunity,” he said.

Despite calls by prominent people involved in the case, such as the prosecutor, to focus on the victims this anniversary, no doubt much of the mainstream news coverage will lead with stories about Timothy McVeigh and the reported rise in white supremacist, white nationalist, and militia groups.   While it’s important to discuss these aspects of the anniversary, it would be a mistake to think about McVeigh and the time just before the bombing as somehow anomalous.  In fact, white supremacist groups are an enduring feature of the American political landscape.