Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The McVeigh Tapes: Confessions of an American Terrorist (MSNBC, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the bombing attack on the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (also the 17th anniversary of the final shootout that destroyed the Branch Davidians’ compound at Waco, Texas and the 235th anniversary of the “shots heard ’round the world” at Lexington, Massachusetts that started the American revolution — and the confluence of those dates is not coincidental). To commemorate — or exploit — the occasion, MSNBC produced a two-hour documentary called The McVeigh Tapes: Confessions of an American Terrorist, ostensibly based on 45 hours’ worth of recorded conversations between Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Lou Michel of the Buffalo News, who of all the reporters in the world who wanted to interview McVeigh got the nod because the terrorist thought that Michel, being from and working in McVeigh’s home town of Buffalo, New York, would understand him and present him sympathetically.

The material wasn’t quite as new as the MSNBC hype machine wanted us to believe — it had already been used by Michel and co-author Dan Herbeck as the basis for a biographical book on McVeigh and the bombing — and it was presented here in an attempt to bring context to it by interspersing McVeigh’s (real) recorded voice with interview footage of other reporters who covered the events, surviving victims of the bombing (including a woman who was a 3 1/2-year-old girl in a day-care center across the street from the Murrah building at the time of the attack and is now in her late teens; she and her mother did the interview jointly) and new footage using a controversial technique that involved having the events of McVeigh’s life (including the construction and deployment of the bomb) staged with an actor playing him (and others as Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier, his co-conspirators) with the actors’ faces digitally altered to resemble more closely their real-life counterparts. The most chilling aspect of the film was the absolutely flat, matter-of-fact tone of voice with which McVeigh recalled both his background and his horrible crime (the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil until the September 11, 2001 events — which occurred, in one of those grim ironies, just three months after McVeigh was executed) — there’s no emotion and no affect whatsoever. He was supposedly motivated to do his dirty deed by an insane hatred of the U.S. government, but even talking about his political views doesn’t seem to motivate him to any audible emotion — no rage, no anger, no hint of frustration or anything else.

McVeigh was the usual scrawny kid from a medium-sized town — he said he had no hint of love between his parents and was more relieved than anything else when they separated (his two sisters, one younger, one older, went to live with their mother in Florida but McVeigh stayed with his dad in Buffalo), but there’s no hint in his recitation that he had any idea what love meant, let alone that he experienced it himself, and if he had any romantic or even sexual outlets, hetero or homo, they’re unmentioned in his tapes. McVeigh recalled being teased through most of his childhood, largely as a result of his skinny stature — “Chicken McVeigh,” he was called, after the McDonald’s entrée — and though intelligent he did indifferently in school. In 1988 he enlisted in the U.S. Army and there, for at least a while, he found his calling: he responded well to the discipline and the clearly structured hierarchies of the military and he seemed set on making soldiering his career — until 1990, when the first President Bush launched his war against Iraq and McVeigh was sent to fight it. He achieved a certain amount of fame and won two decorations through a lucky “kill shot” that simultaneously took out two Iraqis who were threatening his Bradley fighting vehicle, but then he decided that the war was morally wrong because the U.S. government was being a bully and murdering Iraqi civilians. The moment I heard that I couldn’t help but flash back to my interviews with veterans of the more recent Iraq war and how they had similar epiphanies but were propelled in a quite different political direction — towards conscientious objection and war resistance instead of Right-wing paranoia and domestic terrorism.

Once he got out of the military (he had signed up for Special Forces training while still recovering from the shock and trauma of combat, washed out and quit both the program and, as soon as he could, the Army itself), McVeigh drifted into the circle of paranoid crazies around gun shows and the militia and survivalist movements that were gaining in the early 1990’s, especially after the shoot-outs at Ruby Ridge and Waco. Though Maddow’s narration doesn’t mention it, there are several scenes in the film showing McVeigh, Nichols and Fortier (or at least the digitally altered actors playing them) reading the book The Turner Diaries, a sort of neo-Nazi dream fantasy published in 1978 by author William Butler Pierce (under the pseudonym “Andrew Macdonald”) that describes a successful revolution and race war against the U.S. government (referred to as the ZOG, or “Zionist-Occupied Government”) once it attempts to confiscate all privately owned guns.

Pierce’s bloody fantasy (which ends with a secret band of white supremacists seizing Vandenberg Air Force Base, taking over its nuclear weapons and using them to wipe out New York City and Israel and establish a world free of all non-white people) was taken as a sort of unholy Bible by a lot of Right-wing nuts, some of whom harbored ambitions to do in real life what happened in Pierce’s fictional world — and McVeigh simply was the most successful (in terms of actually mounting and carrying out an attack) and the most brutal of the crimes inspired by The Turner Diaries (which actually opens with a scene of a bombing similar to the one McVeigh carried out for real) and its scenario of white redemption through violence. (Pierce wrote another, similarly themed novel, Hunter — about a former Air Force pilot who commits targeted assassinations of interracial couples and supporters of civil rights, and then “matures” from anti-Black racism to anti-Semitism once he realizes that the Jews really run the U.S. government and all big American institutions. According to the wikipedia entry on the book, a copy of Hunter was found at the home of McVeigh’s co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, when it was searched after the Oklahoma City bombing.) Once McVeigh decided to blow up a federal building on the April 19 anniversary of the U.S. revolution and the Waco siege, he carried out his plan — according to his own account, which I have no trouble believing — with a bizarre combination of imagination and discipline, maintaining to the end his identity as a soldier on a mission and justifying the slaughter of innocent people by reference to the civilian casualties that always occur, ostensibly for a “greater good,” in war.

I think it’s not altogether fair to lump the militias and so-called “patriot” movements of the 1990’s in with the “tea party” protests of today, which for all the extravagant violence of their rhetoric (including Sarah Palin’s repeated calls to “reload!”) have at least publicly steered clear of inciting anything more than rhetorical violence and whose spokespeople have stated publicly that they still trust in their ability to get rid of Obama, the Democrats and the so-called “statists” and “taxers” in both major parties through electoral means. There are a handful of people who have organized militias in the last year (including one that was recently busted that seemed more like a tiny, family-based religious cult than anything else) but nothing like what was going on in the 1990’s — perhaps because most of the radical-Right minions of today don’t feel they have to: with one-half of the corporate media (the half represented by talk radio and the by-far most watched network on cable news, Fox) almost totally given over to their propaganda, and the demonstrated ability of talk-show hosts, Right-wing community organizers and the big organizations (many of them led by former lobbyists and Republican politicians, like Dick Armey’s Freedom House) that fund their movement, they probably don’t think they need to mount a violent overthrow of the U.S. government and any McVeigh-like idiots who tried something like now would be hurting their cause far more than they would be helping it.

Liberals and Leftists who scream bloody murder at the 15th anniversary of Oklahoma City and at idiotic statements like Rush Limbaugh’s call yesterday for a commemoration of David Koresh (a religious nut and incest practitioner who has been inflated, not only among Right-wing nut cases but relatively prestigious and highly popular figures like Limbaugh, into a symbol of heroic resistance to the oppressions of the federal government — and in truth what the feds did to the Branch Davidians was wrong, a reaction far out of proportion to any legitimate law enforcement interest that seemed aimed more at obliterating them than apprehending them and ending any social danger they might have posed, but that still doesn’t make Koresh any sort of hero!) should instead be concerned at the extent to which anti-government views like the ones that motivated McVeigh have become so ingrained into the mainstream that the current far-Right movement has judged, probably correctly, that they don’t need to be terrorists: all they have to do is gain political strength to the point where they can take over the country legally, just as Adolf Hitler realized after the embarrassing failure of the Beer Hall Putsch that he needed to take the long route of building political support and using the institutions of democracy to undermine and ultimately destroy them.