Timothy McVeigh was guilty. He’s dead. We’re all guilty. We’re alive. What can we do so that the deaths that he caused and his own death do not leave us even farther from the world that we want. I haven’t been to Oklahoma City; I don’t really know what it’s like to visit the scene of the bombing. I don’t know if I would be more affected by the painful memories or turned off by the transformation of meaningful family items (like a stuffed animal) into only sentimental public tokens (like lots of stuffed animals).
Timothy McVeigh was an American man at war with America. He appears to have felt no animosity towards any of his fellow Americans, other than those who worked for agencies he thought to be responsible for assaults against peoples’ rights and freedoms (such as the FBI and the ATF), but he refused to accord Americans any special standing among the peoples of the world. Those of us who believe in good wars waged by the government of the United States, or probably by any government anywhere, need to pay close attention to the deeds and political vision of Timothy McVeigh. His willingness to wage war against his fellow Americans and his political justifications for his actions, meager as his own words on the topic are, should cause the rest of us to stop and think about the ways in which this country wages war and the ways in which that war-making inevitably affects those of us unharmed by the bombs and missiles exploding on our television screens.
Timothy McVeigh was not the agent of any foreign power. He bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City because it housed agencies of the American government that had been responsible for crimes against Americans (specifically, the incineration of Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas and the assault on the Weaver family in Ruby Ridge, Idaho). He refused to acknowledge any distinction between those who gave the orders and those who just worked in those agencies. He also refused to acknowledge any distinction between those who were in that building because of their direct involvement with those agencies and those who were merely engaging in normal interactions with other federal agencies, such as those filing for Social Security benefits. According to Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck, the authors of American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh & the Oklahoma City Bombing:
McVeigh had considered targeting specific individuals, among them Lou Horiuchi, the FBI sharpshooter who had killled Randy Weaver’s wife, Vicki, at Ruby Ridge. He considered going after a member of the sharpshooter’s family, to inflict the same kind of pain the surviving Weaver’s had experienced. But ultimately he decided that he would make the loudest statement by bombing a federal building. By destroying people who compiled a complete cross-section of federal employees, McVeigh believed that he was showing federal agents how wrong they were to attack the entire Branch Davidian family. In McVeigh’s opinion, every division of the federal government had, at one time or another, mistreated the public. Now, McVeigh decided, was the time to make them all pay.
That’s what happens in war. They all pay–even those who no one believes should pay. Soldiers die and so do a lot of other people, including children, who play no active role in war-making. (From all accounts, however, McVeigh did not know that there was a child care center in the building and, if he had, he might have changed his plan. He previously decided not to bomb a federal building in Little Rock, Arkansas because it had a florist shop on the ground floor.)
His concern for protecting some, while rather cold-bloodedly anticipating the deaths of others, had a logic, albeit a very narrowly constructed one–a soldier’s logic. Again, from Michel and Herbeck:
¼Timothy McVeigh wanted a body count–the higher the better. The federal government, he reasoned, had unlimited amounts of cash to replace buildings, but the lives of federal employees could not be replaced. He needed to deliver a quantity of casualties the federal government would never forget. It was the same tactic the American government used in armed international conflicts, when it wanted to send a message to tyrants and despots. It was the United States government that had ushered in this new anything-goes mentality. McVeigh believed , and he intended to show the world what it would be like to fight a war under these new rules, right in the federal government’s own backyard.
McVeigh was born in 1968. He grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo at a time when those suburbs were being drained of jobs and the predictable, tolerably miserable, futures those jobs made possible. His father worked for more than thirty years at Harrison radiator, A company that provided radiators for GM cars. His father had worked there too. But his son never did. It’s not clear if he could have. We shouldn’t imagine that there was no way that he could have become connected with that stable world of work and weariness. Even McVeigh had his choices. But his world was not his father’s or mother’s world.
He got to choose from among the pluses and minuses of a world without a stable relationship to a job and a wage. Outside of his years in the army, Timothy McVeigh worked in a Burger King, as a security guard or as a salesman at gun shows. Outside of a couple of brief encounters, he never had a chance to develop the kind of everyday, self-deprecating, boss-hating and almost mutually-loving, relationships that are the bread and butter of life in what we might imagine to be working class America. He was not alone. In some places during the same years, such as South Boston, discontented young people sought refuge in drugs and crime and created a profoundly self-destructive alternative solidarity to the solidarity of whiteness and work that was the birthright of their parents and relatives. In others, such as Detroit, young people found comradeship in gangs linked to neo-Nazi organizations. In all cases, the futures were bleak and the alternatives never included the possibility of proletarian revolution as a world-civilizing project. Those who advocated revolution presented it as the refusal of civilization rather than its fulfillment. Those who had once, in the all-too-brief moment of the 1960s, been the proponents of a civilizing revolution had, for the most part, withdrawn to more provincial lives of professional work and the raising of children. They had nothing to say to Timothy McVeigh.
Timothy McVeigh did not start a race war. He did not start a race riot. He did not participate in a lynching. He did not bomb a black church. He killed people, considered by the conventions of our time, to be black and white. He does not appear to have been a white supremacist. In fact, after a time, he might not even have considered himself to be white. He probably never thought about it and he certainly was no race traitor but he didn’t plant a white bomb.
The lost possibilities are painful ones. In a time when all too few appear to be willing to act on the strength of their convictions, Timothy McVeigh (more or less on his own) refused to do anything less. But he never had the benefit of two very important things–he never enjoyed the benefit of consistent contact with black folks and he never enjoyed the benefit of sustained political debate.
McVeigh came back from the Gulf War a different person. At times, he was close to breaking down. On one particularly bad day, it was only the unarticulated kindness and care of his grandfather that saved him. It was a simple matter–a couch to sleep on and no questions asked.
But even the kindness of his grandfather couldn’t keep him still. He set off from Buffalo and all but jumped from place to place–Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Arkansas, Arizona. Although he mostly used beat up cars rather than a horse or a raft, he reminded me of John Brown and Huck Finn. Staying put was the worst danger of all because you might get used to it. But American rootlessness has its dangers as well.
Let me end with the wisdom of fiction. Author’s notes included at the end of the published edition of Juneteenth, Ralph Ellison’s posthumously published novel, include the suggestive sentence, “Hickman is “Jim” and Bliss is “Huck” who cut out for the territory.” In Ellison’s novel, Hickman is an almost godly black minister and Bliss is a polished white supremacist that Hickman had raised. When Huck Finn announced at the end of Mark Twain’s novel that he’s setting out for the territory (Oklahoma), he didn’t realize the danger for his soul when he no longer had the benefit of contact with the Jim’s of his day. From the time that Timothy McVeigh set out from Buffalo to the time that he arrived in that same Oklahoma, he never had the benefit of sustained contact with the Jim’s of our day.
In a review of the work of Russell Banks, published in this journal in 1999, Beth Henson closed her essay with a question: “Will Bone grow up to be the 21st century John Brown?” As some readers may know, Bone is the principal adolescent character in Banks’s Rule of the Bone and he too is a rootless wanderer. At the end of that novel, Bone has learned a good deal from his Jim, a Jamaican by the name of I-Man, but he is adrift and his future is uncertain. The not too hopeful answer to Henson’s question is that he won’t become John Brown. He’ll become Timothy McVeigh. And that is a shame. And we all bear some of the responsibility.