Twenty-five years ago today, a young U.S. Army veteran named Timothy McVeigh parked a moving truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. At 9:02 a.m., McVeigh’s homemade truck bomb detonated, ripping a hole through the Murrah building and killing 168 people, 19 of whom were children.
Sadly, this anniversary comes at a time when Americans are in the midst of another tragedy. At a time of such pain, it seems cruel to borrow more from the past. But COVID-19 and the tragedy in Oklahoma City raise similar questions that should stir us as a nation. What’s the role of government? Where do individual freedoms begin and end? Most importantly, how do we treasure and preserve human life?
Like this present crisis, the tragedy in Oklahoma City didn’t happen overnight; it was the perfect storm of government failings, human evil, and political zeitgeist. We need to understand how it happened, remember those who were lost, and allow ourselves to be shaped by the wisdom that tragedy brings.
Waco, Ruby Ridge, and the Road to Oklahoma City
The date of the Oklahoma City attack was no coincidence; it was a red-letter date for McVeigh. Two years earlier, April 19, 1993 had marked the end of the 51-day siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas. The Branch Davidians, an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist church, became increasingly apocalyptic under the charismatic leadership of David Koresh. Claiming to be the messiah, Koresh “married” and had children with many in the group, including underage girls.
They also began to amass weapons to prepare for the end times. This caught the notice of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), which attempted to siege the compound in February 1993. With all eyes on Waco, media and members of the public flocked to the scene, amassing on a hill outside the compound. One of those onlookers at Waco was 24-year-old McVeigh.
After a 51-day standoff, the FBI attempted to force the remaining Davidians out of the compound using tear gas. Instead, the compound erupted into flames, killing Koresh and the women and children inside with him. In the end, four ATF agents and at least 82 Davidians were dead.
For many Americans, Waco was a grim sequel to an event less than a year before: the assault at Ruby Ridge in Idaho. Attempting to arrest him for failure to appear in federal court, U.S. Marshals assaulted the compound of Randy Weaver and his family. In a series of confused, escalating events, a shootout ensued between the Weavers and the agents. In the end, Weaver’s 14-year old son, his wife Vicky, Marshal Michael Degan, and the Weaver family dog were dead.
Weaver was well-armed and known to have extreme, apocalyptic religious beliefs, but his connection to white supremacist groups like the Aryan Nations is debatable. However, the siege at Ruby Ridge and at Waco galvanized white supremacists and anti-government extremists. For McVeigh, Waco and Ruby Ridge was a rallying cry against a power-hungry U.S. government.
‘There Has to Be a Body Count’
After his honorable service in Operation Desert Storm, a young McVeigh returned home disillusioned from war. He struggled to find a job and regretted fighting and killing on behalf of a government that he saw as unjust and oppressive. Like many other anti-government extremists, he was inspired by “The Turner Diaries,” a racist, dystopian novel whose protagonist bombs FBI headquarters to start a new world order. He even sold it at his tables at gun shows.
After Ruby Ridge and Waco, McVeigh was ready to take action against the iron-fisted federal government. Using “The Turner Diaries” as a blueprint, he targeted the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City for a bombing. Why? Because it housed offices for federal agencies, including the great enemy of Waco: the ATF.
We do not know if McVeigh knew of the building’s daycare center, but it likely would not have mattered. The whole point, as McVeigh would later explain, was that people would die.
“There has to be a body count,” said McVeigh. “The government’s not going to sit up and take notice unless there’s a body count. They can always build a new building. The only way they’re going to feel something and the only way they’re going to get the message is with a body count.”
Remember Those We Lost
The day after McVeigh’s attack on the Murrah Building, newspapers around the world carried images of the massacre. One eventually won a Pulitzer Prize. It was of an Oklahoma City firefighter cradling a lifeless baby covered in dust and blood. The little girl, Baylee Almon, had just had her first birthday the day before.
A society that does not make room in its memory for this child—and the 18 others murdered that day—is not a society we want to be a part of. This should make us weep today just as much as it did 25 years ago.
Understanding root causes and remembering victims, however, is just part of what it means to mourn a tragedy. Tragedy has a way of cutting through the noise and pressing pause on everything that does not matter. It forces us to re-evaluate the direction we’re headed. Tragedy speaks to us, if we would only stop to listen.
For a while at least, America listened after the Oklahoma City attack. It turned us off to paranoid, violent views. Along with the September 11 attacks that soon followed, the Oklahoma City Bombing ended a wave of home-grown extremism that wouldn’t resurface for another two decades.
The current pandemic presents a different enemy, but our obligations remain the same: understand the cause, remember the victims, and accept the wisdom of tragedy. The universe has given us another opportunity to ask ourselves if this is who we really want to be.
Do we really want to be a nation that rejoices in tragedy if it injures our political enemies? Do we want to mindlessly drug ourselves with food, online shopping, and Netflix until the rat race starts up again? Do we want to continue down a path of unsustainable disunity and demonization of our neighbors?
The universe is giving us a chance to be better people. In honor of those we’ve lost, please, let’s take it.