Reflections From Oklahoma City

I actually penned these thoughts a few years ago, for a letter, but fully intending to adapt them and place them on the Web. However, I have held back, probably out of fear of being misinterpreted by some as somehow sympathizing with the bombing, which is NOT true. But on the day of McVeigh's execution, it feels like it is time to reveal my ruminations to public view.

Regency Towers, which McVeigh passed on the way to the Murrah buildingAfter leaving Waco in 1998, I went up to Oklahoma City. The year before, I had not had the time to go, but I was determined to see the site that year, in its raw honesty, before construction on the contrived new memorial got underway. I got there at daybreak, and was surprised by the solitude. At first, I was the only one there; only later did the other visitors I had expected all along trickle in. Mt. Carmel, and the Waco graveyard, is more powerful in the quiet too.

My reaction was more complex than that of most visitors, though, I suspect. I can't begrudge the victims the support they have received. But as someone who cares about the dead of Waco as well, I can't help but wonder at the different reactions to the two tragedies.

Part of the complexity is reflected in the question that is always asked, WHY? Why would anyone want to kill these wonderful, innocent people? On the one hand, WHY? reflects the best in humanity. When one sees the lives cut short, the potential lost, the pain caused, it is indeed hard to see why anyone would want this horrific result.

The church on the corner by the Murrah buildingBut there is a darker undercurrent to the question as well. Revenge, sadly, is one of the primal instincts of human nature. It is not even unnatural to lash out against innocent people, for simply belonging to the same group as the guilty: witness the abuse Arabs and Muslims suffered when "Middle Eastern men" were getting the blame. True, few feel the desire for vengeance as strongly as the bombers. But that is not the only reason people cannot tap that part of themselves to understand the bombing. Openly, people ask, "How could anyone have so much hate?" But there is an unspoken subtext: "How could anyone care enough about that bunch of wackos to blow up a building over them?"

There is, then, also an inhumane strain to the question, WHY? And an ethnonarcissistic quality as well. Americans know horrible atrocities are committed in faraway lands, but wonder, "Why would anybody do this to us? We're such wonderful people." And we are apparently prepared to believe Muslims capable of such a deed, but can't grasp how Americans could do such a thing. Have we forgotten what Americans did at Mountain Meadows, Wounded Knee, and My Lai?

Too, there is something odd about watching reporters who have covered Cambodia, Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, and other horrors, carrying on about the incomprehensibility of Oklahoma City. I can't believe that all of them find it as inexplicable as they say they do. Rather, having whipped up this idea that anybody who could even understand the bombing would barely be better than McVeigh himself, they can't admit that they are not as nonplussed as they pretend.

Barrier blocking the street of the memorialSo as I walked around the fence and perused the offerings that had been left on it, I simply couldn't shut down my critical faculties and give in to the moment. Many who have visited the site have been shaken by the awesome weight of what happened there. Of course I couldn't help but feel some of that. But the juxtaposition of this outpouring in Oklahoma, and the obliviousness of so many to the dead of Waco, also struck me. Some of the tributes were eloquent, many were moving. But none of them moved beyond the narrow rut marked out by the media. No one noticed that many Americans were as callous about the lives of the Branch Davidians as the bombers were to those in the Murrah building. No one remembered that there had also been a fence at Waco, where visitors hung gifts for the dead. No one wondered whether, if someone in China had blown up a government building on the second anniversary of Tienanmen Square, Americans would have found that act "incomprehensible." No one asked if Americans would have had the same horrified reaction to terrorists blowing up government offices in Iraq, and if we would consider those inside "innocent." No one mused about why, if Americans think of McVeigh as a monster because they simply cannot abide anyone who butchers women and children, so many supported the lenient treatment of Lt. William Calley by President Nixon. And perhaps that was not the place for such introspection- it might be as jarring as a eulogy that frankly covered both good and bad. But I did not get the sense that the authors of the tributes were any more reflective about the tragedy in private.

Paul Heath, leader of the Survivors Association, wrote, "Know full well of the anger that grew into hate and how their hate was stirred by hate in others." Perhaps he is taking the long view in speaking of these others "stirring" up hatred: Timothy McVeigh reading The Turner Diaries before the Gulf War. But many people, including our President, blame those who have been critical of federal actions like Waco or Ruby Ridge. Interestingly, these same people take umbrage at the slightest hint that such federal abuses might have been a factor. That is, that any suggestion that Waco itself might have helped cause the bombing is OUTRAGEOUS, but blaming people for talking about Waco is perfectly reasonable! Whatever one thinks of such "logic," McVeigh at least does not seem to have required anyone to tell him to be angry about Waco. Shortly after the shootout, he went to Waco to sell antigovernment bumper stickers.

The Survivor Tree, across the street from the blast, whose survival became a symbol of enduranceHeath then adds, "Honor not these evildoers with petty unwarranted and unbridled criticisms of others." He apparently doesn't notice that he could be accused of doing just that, in blaming some for "stirring" up McVeigh! That irony points to the question, just what criticism does he feel is "petty" and "unwarranted?" Does he mean the criticisms we give in our daily lives? Criticism of other races? Criticism of Nichols jurors? "Unbridled" bigotry against groups like the Branch Davidians? Or does he mean that anybody like me "honors" the evildoers by persisting with "unwarranted" and "petty" criticisms of the government?

This is actually just one of a couple of places that say "we," but really mean "they," or at least are likely to be interpreted that way by most visitors, as in, "We need to stop hating one another." I suspect that most people think, "I may have a little hate, but they- the militias, the white supremacists, the antigovernment extremists- are the ones who really need to stop hating." I notice that when the call to "stop hating" moves beyond the general, the examples cited are hatred of government workers and of other races, never the hatred many felt towards the Branch Davidians.

One woman left a poem, faulting the bombers who took innocent lives, "not looking for other ways to deal with their strife." Before the bombing, was she writing letters, marching in demonstrations, and using these "other ways" to get the truth out about Ruby Ridge and Waco? Is she doing so now? How in fact does she really feel about those who have never resorted to violence, but have always used "other ways" to struggle for justice? Does she actually respect us as people using the proper "ways" of the system? Or does she view us with distaste as "kooks" who are disturbing society and encouraging terrorists? Does she stand up for us against people who do think that way?

(In fact, Tim McVeigh appears to have used those "other ways" more than most people, going down to Waco, writing letters, and giving people videos that he thought revealed the "truth" about Waco. It is not that he neglected "other ways" than violence, it is just that he didn't feel they were sufficient. As it turns out, blowing up a building didn't do much either. But nothing that happened before or since Oklahoma City offered much hope that non-violent means would get the truth out to a majority of the people.)

Later, she added, "I'm thankful to live in the USA/Where I'm allowed to live and pray." Would she think that way if she were a Branch Davidian, who live in a country whose government PAYS spokespeople to insult the way they "live and pray" and foment religious bigotry against them, at official press conferences?

A banner proclaimed, "Out of a senseless act of violence, came world peace. Don't let it slip away." I understood the sentiment. But I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow. As terrible as Oklahoma City was, there have been atrocities committed on a far vaster scale- Rwanda, Cambodia, the Holocaust- without bringing "world peace." Does this person think that because something horrible happened to "heartland" Americans, it could do more to bring "world" peace than all these other horrors? As I said, I understood what he meant, but his expression was clumsy.

One tribute read, "His name was Scott. To his killers he had no name. Maybe that's why it's easy for people filled with hate and revenge to destroy lives." However, the suggestion that the killers might be motivated by revenge raises a question: if that was their motive, who were they "revenging?" Are those people as "nameless" to the author as Scott was to the bombers?

Michigan Governor John Engler's letterI saw a letter from the governor of Michigan to the people of Oklahoma City. Strange, I didn't remember seeing a letter from the governor at Mt. Carmel.

A number of offerings pledged, "We will never forget." On April 18, 1995, were any of these people snickering that people who pledged to "never forget" Waco needed to "get over it?"

In fact, I didn't encounter a single mention that there were people called Branch Davidians. All these people asking, WHY?, when the answer is staring them in the face: the bombers felt about the Branch Davidians the way they feel about these dead, and the bombers were as indifferent about the fate of their victims, as they or people they knew were towards the Davidians! No one seemed to grasp that while Oklahoma City may have been retaliation for Waco, it is this capacity to shrug off "their" dead, while crying for "our" dead and wanting vengeance for them, that binds the two on a more fundamental level.

However widespread the sentiments expressed on the fence, they are not unanimous. In private, many people will say that they do understand why the bombers did it. But they are afraid to say so out loud, a reticence apparently all the stronger at ground zero. There is no better illustration of the fact that, while the First Amendment may give everyone the legal right to say what they want, incredibly powerful social pressure can repress expression almost as thoroughly as government censors.

The most disturbing aspect of my visit was the haunting memory of the dead, but this lack of independence of thought and contemplative depth may also have serious implications for the future. After all, a democracy relies on a thoughtful, informed citizenry with the courage to speak their minds and the respect to hear out dissenting voices. Instead, we see a majority willing to cheer on a demagogic leader as he calls for a pogrom against anyone who speaks out on Waco, and a minority cowed into silence.

I returned to Oklahoma City the next year, with construction on the memorial in progress, but my visit that drizzly day was brief. I hope to return to see the completed memorial, but have not yet had the chance.

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