Wednesday, February 8, 2017

American Experience: Oklahoma City Bombing (WGBH/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a quite good PBS American Experience episode on the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19, 1995, in which a disaffected U.S. Army veteran named Tim McVeigh drove a Ryder rental truck filled with bomb components — fertilizer, auto racing fuel, blasting caps and Tovex sticks — into the side of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (with all that’s been written about the attack, no one seems to have mentioned who Alfred P. Murrah was and why he got a federal building in Oklahoma City named after him) and blew it up, taking out one-third of the entire building and killing at least 168 people (that number is from the Wikipedia page on the incident and the show suggests there may have been up to 500 victims), the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil until the 9/11 attacks six years later. The show’s writer/director, Barak Goodman, steered a careful line between reporting on the attacks themselves (including a lot of sorrowful plaints from parents who lost their kids in the building’s in-house day-care center) and showing the evolution of the extreme Right-wing mindset that generated them, and in particular three benchmark incidents that convinced a lot of hard-Right American white supremacists that the government was out to get them: the gunfights that took down Bob Mathews in 1984 and the wife and child of Randy Weaver in 1992, and the massacre of the Branch Davidians at Waco on April 19, 1993 — McVeigh seems to have done the Oklahoma City massacre when he did because it was the second anniversary of the fall of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco. (As the Wikipedia page on Oklahoma City notes, it was also the 220th anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord that kicked off the American Revolution.) The story is pretty well known by now, but just to recap: in the late 1970’s a number of white supremacists in the U.S. became convinced that the U.S. government was controlled by an international conspiracy led by Jews (indeed they started referring to the U.S. as the “Zionist-Occupied Government,” or ZOG) that was working to put the U.S. under the direct rule of the United Nations (if you’ve heard the phrase “black helicopters” as a metaphor for conspiracy theories in general, it has its origins in the paranoid fantasy of these people that the United Nations occupation forces would fly into the U.S. unannounced in unmarked black helicopters).

A man named William Butler Pierce wrote a novel called The Turner Diaries, first published as a serial in a National Alliance-published newspaper called Attack! and then printed as a stand-alone paperback in 1978, whose plot was the story of an attempted takeover of the U.S. by Zionists and internationalists that begins with the U.S. passing gun-control legislation that results in people’s firearms being confiscated. A Right-wing resistance movement called “the Organization” springs up and successfully challenges the government by arming itself with nuclear weapons it is able to steal from the U.S. military. Along the way to the final triumph of the white resistance, which according to an epilogue soon becomes international and leads to the extermination of all non-white humans, quite a lot of things happen, including domestic terror attacks with bombs similar to the one McVeigh and his real-life co-conspirators, Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier (who got much lighter sentences than he did because they bailed on the plot before the attack took place), used in Oklahoma City. Indeed, McVeigh and company actually got the bomb design from The Turner Diaries, though they also referenced The Anarchist Cookbook (a publication that’s likewise been around at least since the 1970’s — my understanding is no one currently sells it in print form but facsimiles are still available online) and made one “improvement” that made their bomb more effective and lethal: instead of using fuel oil in the mix they put in highly volatile auto racing fuel (they actually wanted jet fuel but they couldn’t afford any). By intercutting between the story of the Oklahoma City bombing itself and the confrontations between the U.S. government and Mathews, Weaver and the Branch Davidians (who weren’t white supremacists but were “adopted” by the ultra-radical Right because they were survivalists and had stockpiled large quantities of guns, some of which they were remodeling into illegal automatic weapons — indeed, the government’s first action against them was a botched raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms which set up the two-month “siege” of the Davidians’ property and ultimately their incineration when the FBI attacked, though Goodman blames the carnage on the Davidians themselves and suggests that their leader, David Koresh, had planned and primed them for a Jim Jones-style mass suicide), Goodman creates a chilling tale that’s even more chilling now that America’s white supremacists are no longer opposing the government, but hailing it. It’s well known that the election of Donald Trump as President was considered a godsend by the ultra-Right movement, not only because it replaced a Black man in power with a white man but because Trump’s views on race and especially on immigration hew frighteningly close to the ultra-racist line of the U.S. far-Right.

Trump’s latest public meltdown over the “so-called judge” James Robart in Seattle, who issued a temporary restraining order against Trump’s ban on refugee immigration and its singling out of seven specific countries — Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Iraq and Iran — whose nationals are barred for 90 days (in Syria’s case, indefinitely) is a case in point. It’s been widely reported that neither the 9/11 attackers nor anyone who’s committed a terror crime inside the U.S. since actually comes from any of those countries, though I just downloaded an article from the Washington Examiner ( that argues that the U.S. Justice Department has a list of 580 people arrested and convicted of terror offenses between September 11, 2001 and December 31, 2014, of which at least 60 come from countries on Trump’s list. What’s hard to doubt, though, is that in the last Presidential election a Democratic nominee whose campaign slogan was “Stronger Together” was beaten by one who openly and unashamedly appealed to prejudice against “Others” — Mexicans, Muslims, the media and coastal elitists — and honed the pitch the Republican Party has been making at least since the 1960’s (when Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond cooked up the “Southern Strategy” that flipped the GOP’s historical position on civil rights from the “Party of Lincoln” to the party of racism and reaction). The racist far-Right in the U.S. has carefully avoided claiming Trump as one of their own, but they’ve hailed his election as the best political news they’ve had in decades, even going so far as to hold a rally at which far-Right white supremacist leader Richard Spencer led a crowd in the Nazi salute and chanted, “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” Spencer said the Nazi salute was given in a spirit of “irony and exuberance,” but he’s also called Trump’s win “the victory of will” — an allusion to Leni Riefenstahl’s famous Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will — and supported Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon, architect of the Muslim ban, as chief political strategist and said Bannon would be in “the best possible position” to influence Trump’s policies in a white-supremacist direction. The really chilling thing about watching the Oklahoma City documentary now is the realization that these people no longer need to launch terror attacks against the U.S. government because, for all practical purposes, they now are the U.S. government.