American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing
© 2001, 2015 Lou Michel & Dan Herberck
During a recreation period one day, a prisoner in an adjoining cage poured his heart out to McVeigh, telling him how his life had gone wrong. When he finished, the inmate looked at McVeigh and asked, “Tim, where did you go wrong?” “I didn’t go wrong,” McVeigh said.
The Oklahoma City bombing is one of the first major news events I can remember hearing about as a kid; although I couldn’t appreciate its brutality then, I knew from the look of horror on adults’ faces as they took in the scene that it was serious.The bomber, I was told, was crazy. This was an act of violence perpetuated by a crazy person. After reading American Terrorist, though, I’m more disturbed about the bombing than ever — because its perpetrator was so frighteningly normal, and went to his death believing he’d done the right thing. American Terrorist is the biography of Timothy McVeigh, an-All American boy broken by war and twisted by hate to become the monster he loathed and thought he was fighting.
Once expects, when reading the biography of someone like McVeigh, to find him pulling the limbs off lizards and throwing cats into ponds for laughs as a kid. That McVeigh isn’t here. We find instead a young man who loved guns but recoiled from hurting others, who learned to hate bullies and yearn to overcome them, like a superhero. In his early youth he worked as a security guard, lauded for his honesty and astonishingly mature professionalism. He looked at Star Trek the Next Generation and saw it in an ideal future: he admired Picard’s moral convictions, Data’s pure reason, and Geordi’s hypercompetence as an engineer. His own interests were diverse, from firearms to computers.
But McVeigh also had his fears, and as they grew older they would dominate him. McVeigh’s interest in guns immersed him in gun culture, and he absorbed its frequent conflicts with the government and grew to see it not as his friend, but more like a really awful neighbor — one who constantly filches your stuff and makes the very act of coexistence obnoxious. Despite this, McVeigh’s interest in firearms and desire for a mission in his life took him into the US Army, where he served with distinction despite his misgivings about US foreign policy, which he regarded as invasive. After being deployed in Iraq, his misgivings ripened into conviction: the US government was a bully, both to its own people and those around the world. When he returned home, he was a different man, sick and angry — and when the government managed to create two fiascos in six months, both of which involved besieging private property and then killing the people inside by purpose or accident, he decided there was only one thing to do: fight back. He was going to attack the government by finding a Federal building that housed ATF and FBI offices, and then blowing it up. He was inspired in part by The Turner Diaries, in which a revolutionary kicks off a war against an oppressive state by destroying the J. Edgar Hoover building. The book then follows McVeigh as he creates a plan and moves forward with it, then covers the trial. Interestingly, McVeigh had already been arrested when he became a person of interest in the case: his tagless getaway vehicle attracted the attention of a state trooper, who then arrested him for the misdemeanor of carrying a concealed weapon without an Oklahoma license.
What makes American Terrorist so disturbing is that McVeigh is a fairly likable and interesting guy for most of the book — even after the bombing, he was amiable to the marshals transporting him. So long as his rage against DC wasn’t activated, he seems to have made for fairly good company: Ted Kaczynski found him an engaging conversationalist, one of the few prisoners who was still interested in the world around him. Most striking to me was how McVeigh constantly groped for, but could not find, some purposeful meaning for his life outside of fighting the government — the security work he took pride in before going into the military seemed pointless afterward, and none of his flirtations with women never grew into a relationship. Perhaps with counseling after the war, he could have had created a constructive life for himself, instead of letting hatred for the government poison his soul and motivate him to enact the same behavior he decried from them — returning ‘dirty for dirty’.
Those interested in the psychology of terrorism will find NPR’s article on self-radicalization helpful.