April 19th, 1995, 9:02 a.m. — It was a normal Wednesday morning in downtown Oklahoma City. There were the routine comings and goings, people were just arriving for work, or dropping their kids off at daycare. But that bustling normality was suddenly shattered by the sound of an explosion.
Over a 16-block area, shattered glass rained down from more than 300 buildings that had been damaged or destroyed, along with nearly 100 cars. But none were as damaged as the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The entire north half of the building had been sheared off by the blast.
At 9:03 a.m., the first of over 1,800 911 calls related to the bombing began coming in. By that time, ambulances, police, and firefighters — along with many nearby civilians — had heard the blast and were already headed to the scene to help. Within 23 minutes of the bombing, the State Emergency Operations Center was set up to organize the massive rescue and recovery efforts. Assisting them were federal agencies including the Air Force, the Civil Air Patrol, the Department of Civil Emergency Management, and the American Red Cross. First responders of all kinds began arriving from all over the country.
In all, 168 people were killed — including 19 children who had been attending the America’s Kids daycare center in the Murrah Federal Building — and 680 people were injured. The youngest victim was just six months old. The damage to buildings, cars, and other property was estimated at about $652 million.
At first, many were quick to assume that the perpetrators had been Arab terrorists. This was not long after the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, so the assumption was not entirely unfounded. Later, investigators would come to find out there was indeed a connection to the World Trade Center bombing — but not in the way anyone could have predicted.
Within an hour and a half, the perpetrator was in police custody — for a traffic violation. At the time, no one knew that he was the one responsible for the worst domestic terrorist attack in US history.
A Culture of Violence
To understand how someone could commit such a horrific act, we have to go deep into one of the most violent extremist subcultures in America: the anti-government gun-rights movement. First emerging in the 1980s, they are rabidly anti-government (while Democrats are in control), anti-UN, pro-gun-rights — and, if you scratch the surface even lightly, white supremacists as well. They believe in an assortment of paranoid (and often racist) conspiracy theories, all built on a foundation of apocalyptic beliefs. Most are convinced that one way or another, the economic, governmental, and social systems of the US (and possibly the rest of the world) will soon break — or be torn — down — i.e., “the shit will hit the fan.” Rather than being afraid of this eventuality, they actually welcome it, believing their superior survival skills and firepower will enable them to survive and even thrive in the ensuing chaos. (note: I realize not all gun-rights advocates and survivalists are racist/violent. But there is too significant of an overlap to ignore).
Every movement has to have an enemy, and their enemy at the time was the federal government, which they believed was coming to take their guns — and, therefore, their liberty — away.
If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because these once-fringe ideologies have since become more or less the mainstream GOP platform, thanks to massive NRA lobbying.
Before the days of the internet, they spread their propaganda through various home-printed ‘zines, NRA newsletters, and slick magazines like Soldier of Fortune and Guns & Ammo. AM talk radio hosts and angry tabloid editorials reached millions across the country, ranting against both real and imagined government overreach. At gun shows, militia and NRA meetings, rabid Second Amendment believers networked, passed along propaganda, and traded in weapons of all kinds.
They held a passionate belief that any weapon should be legal for anyone to own — including bombs. Bomb-making information and instructions, both verbal and written, were often circulated and discussed among these groups.
The Radicalization of Timothy McVeigh
At first, Timothy McVeigh didn’t seem like the type to fall in with such a crowd. Born in 1968 to a pious, hardworking Catholic family in Pendleton, in upstate New York, McVeigh was an outgoing, smart kid. While he was sometimes ribbed for being so tall and skinny, he also had plenty of friends. His house, with its pool parties in the summer and haunted houses in the fall, was the hub of the neighborhood youth scene.
But certain events were to set McVeigh on a very dark path. The first was the divorce of his parents. His two sisters — one older than him, one younger — went to live with their mother, while McVeigh was to stay with his father. Undoubtedly reeling emotionally from the breakup of his once-close family, the trauma was compounded by the fact that he was left alone most of the time. The quiet, rural town had nothing to do, leaving McVeigh bored and restless.
He was, however, very close with his grandfather. It was he who taught him his love of guns while taking him out shooting. His grandfather even bought him his first gun.
The second catalyst came, as so many important ones do, in the form of a novel. When he was 14, McVeigh picked up The Turner Diaries by William Pierce, a naked work of neo-Nazi propaganda about a race war that results in a “justified” genocide of non-whites. The book became his Bible: he would keep a copy of it with him for years, re-reading it over and over for inspiration, and carrying pages from it with him to commit the worst terrorist attack in US history.
As a gun enthusiast, he was most certainly exposed to the militia movement’s anti-government (and white supremacist) propaganda. By high school, it had worked: McVeigh became increasingly paranoid that the government was on the verge of taking away his beloved guns.
He graduated in 1986, and, partially funded on a scholarship, attended a local business college. But he considered it boring and dropped out quickly. Instead, he bummed around Pendleton for a couple years, eventually taking a job as an armored-car guard, which enabled him to obtain his concealed-carry permit at 19. He seemed to like this job and impressed his boss with his work ethic. However, his boss and coworkers didn’t like his habit of coming to work so heavily armed — including draped in bandoliers of shotgun shells.
By 1988, he was growing restless of the job and small-town Pendleton in general. So on the advice of a friend of his father, he enlisted in the Army. Now, to explain to those who don’t understand why a self-avowed “anti-government activist” would willing sign up to become property of said government, you must understand that for most in the militia/gun-rights movement, the military is somehow exempt from their conception of “the government,” and many members are current or former military.
In fact the Army and McVeigh were a good fit. McVeigh was an exemplary soldier and a dead-eye aim. Like in Pendleton, he immediately made many friends — including Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier, fellow anti-government gun-rights activists.
Then in January of 1991, he deployed to the first battle of the Persian Gulf War. In fact, his unit was in the first wave of troops to roll into Kuwait. In that battle, as an expert gunner on a Bradley fighting vehicle, he blew off an Iraqi soldier’s head with a cannon — an accomplishment he at first celebrated. His fellow soldiers remember him as being one of the most gung-ho fighters, eager to kill, blasting heavy metal to amp himself and his fellow troops up for the battle. His unit was responsible for killing over 650 the first day of fighting alone. He would go on to earn the Bronze Star for bravery.
But in letters back home, he would say that the death and suffering he’d witnessed had affected him deeply. When he came back from the Gulf, he was invited to try out for the Special Forces. He initially jumped at the chance, but ended up dropping out after only two days. He left the Army with an honorable discharge in 1991.
After that, he continued his vagabonding with his old Army buddy, Nichols. They followed the gun show circuit and preached the evils of government. They also spent time at Nichols’ brother’s farm in Michigan, and McVeigh would bounce between the farm and Fortier’s home in Kingman, Arizona — where he was introduced to methamphetamines. The three began using meth and LSD heavily and often.
Then two tragedies occurred that further enraged and radicalized McVeigh, Nichols, and Fortier — along with countless other gun-rights activists. These were the sieges at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and a year later in Waco, Texas. Both were sieges that ended in mass killings committed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms against people who were accused of weapons charges, but who had refused to surrender to the authorities.
During the nearly two months that the Waco compound was under siege, McVeigh was so upset about what was happening that he traveled to Waco to participate in protests. After leaving, he was sitting on Nichols’ couch watching TV when he saw the compound go up in fire and smoke, killing 75 men, women, and children. McVeigh, convinced that the BATF was responsible, was stunned, screaming, and crying from the sight.
But the final straw was when Pres. Bill Clinton signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a.k.a. “The assault weapons ban.” In their minds, this was the final straw of government overreach and tyranny. McVeigh believed he had to strike back.
At that point, the three began reaching out to other ant-government gun-rights groups. Fortier had ties to militia groups near his home in Arizona. McVeigh and Nichols attended some Michigan Militia meetings, but according to that group, were asked to leave because of their violent rhetoric.
They also began visiting Elohim City, a white-supremacist compound in eastern Oklahoma and frequent host of the Aryan Republican Army. There, they would not be ousted for their violent views.
Stewing in anti-government rage, surrounded by a violent echo-chamber of white supremacy, and possibly fried out of their brains on meth and LSD, McVeigh and Nichols began to form a plan. They began stockpiling fertilizer and other bomb-making ingredients and storing them in a rented shed near Nichols’ home in Junction City, Kansas. The two began making and testing explosives on Nichols’ brother’s farm.
At first, McVeigh’s plan was much more strategic: he wanted to assassinate specific political targets, including then-Attorney General Janet Reno and one of the law enforcement officers who killed the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge.
But it quickly became apparent that this would not be possible — the intended targets had enough security that no one could effectively reach them. So instead, he turned to radical Islamic terrorist techniques for inspiration. He was impressed by the effectiveness of the recent World Trade Center bombing. He became obsessed with it, using it as a template for his own plan. He also drew inspiration from a scene in The Turner Diaries where the protagonists pull a truck full of explosives up to a federal building, then detonate it.
In December of 1994, the plan was nearing completion, but they still had not decided on a target. McVeigh would later say his criterion was that the target should house at least two of three federal law enforcement agencies: BATF, FBI, or DEA. He considered the presence of additional agencies as a bonus.
Near Christmas, McVeigh and Fortier drove to Dallas to purchase more bomb-making materials, and on the way back, they stopped in Oklahoma City. This was probably where McVeigh made his decision.
The Murrah Federal Building housed no less than 14 federal agencies, including the DEA, ATF, Social Security Administration, and recruiting offices for the Army and Marine Corps. It had been the target of a previous bombing attempt in 1983, when the white-supremacist group The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord had plotted to park a van or trailer in front of it and “blow it up.”
McVeigh and Fortier, acting as tourists, toured the Murrah Federal Building — starting with the daycare.
Months passed, and McVeigh increasingly isolated himself.
Then, on April 14, 1995, McVeigh put his plan into motion. He rented a motel room in Junction City. The next day he rented a moving truck from Ryder under the alias Robert D. Kling.
April 16, he drove to Oklahoma City with Nichols, where a nearby apartment building’s security camera recorded images of Nichols’ blue pickup truck. McVeigh parked a getaway car — his 1977 Mercury Marquis — several blocks away from the Murrah Federal Building.
After removing the license plate from the Mercury, McVeigh left a note covering the VIN that read, “Not abandoned. Please do not tow. Will move by April 23. (Needs battery & cable).” Both men then returned to Kansas.
On April 17 and 18, McVeigh and Nichols retrieved the bomb supplies from their storage unit and loaded them into the Ryder rental truck. They then drove to Geary Lake State Park, where, as the sun rose, they nailed boards onto the floor of the truck to hold the filled barrels in place. They then mixed the chemicals using plastic buckets and a bathroom scale. Each of the 13 barrels, when filled with the explosives, weighed nearly 500 pounds. McVeigh added more explosives to the driver’s side of the cargo bay so he could ignite them at close range with his pistol in case the primary fuses failed … and killing himself in the process. McVeigh arranged the barrels and filled the side panel of the truck with bags of fertilizer in order to direct the blast towards the building. He then drilled through the truck’s floorboards and body to insert a dual-fuse ignition system — one at five minutes and one at two minutes — accessible from the truck’s cab.
After finishing the truck bomb, the two separated. Nichols returned home; McVeigh, driving the loaded Ryder truck, returned to his motel room in Junction City.
The next day was April 19, a date that was (and still is) of special significance in gun-rights circles: called “Patriots Day,” it was the date of the Battle of Lexington, and, more recently, the second anniversary of the massacre in Waco. This particular April 19 was the day that Richard Snell, one of the founders of The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (who had previously tried to bomb the Murrah Federal Building) would be executed for murder.
At 8:57 a.m., the security camera that had picked up Nichols’ truck three days earlier recorded the Ryder truck heading towards the federal building. At that exact moment, McVeigh lit the five-minute fuse.
Three minutes later, now a block away from his target, he lit the two-minute fuse.
He parked the Ryder truck in a drop-off zone under the daycare center, then hurried away to his getaway vehicle.
At 9:02 a.m., the Ryder truck, containing over 4,800 pounds of explosives, detonated.
An hour and a half later and about 65 miles north of Oklahoma City, on I-35 near the town of Perry, Oklahoma State Trooper Charlie Hangar had heard about the bombing over his radio, and observed other law-enforcement vehicles headed that way. But there was no named suspect or even a description. As he was watching for speeders, he spotted a yellow 1977 Mercury Marquis without a liscence plate. When he pulled it over, he noticed the driver had a suspicious bulge under his jacket, which turned out to be a concealed weapon — loaded with illegal armor-piercing bullets.
Hangar arrested McVeigh — who gave his real name — on charges of driving without a license and illegally concealing a weapon. Once McVeigh was in custody at the local jail, Hangar searched his patrol car for any evidence that McVeigh might have left. Indeed, he found a business card for a Michigan military surplus store hastily hidden in the seat. Written on the back, it said, “TNT $5 a stick. Need more.”
Meanwhile, back in Oklahoma City, the FBI was investigating the bombing. The investigation, code-named OKBOMB, included 900 federal, state, and local law-enforcement personnel — the largest criminal task force since the investigation into the assassination of JFK. It was also the largest criminal case in America’s history.
At the bomb site, investigators found two crucial pieces of evidence: the VIN from an axle of the Ryder truck, along with the remnants of its license plate. These were used to link the truck to the specific Ryder rental agency in Junction City. The owner of that office was able to help FBI agents create a sketch of the suspect. McVeigh was also identified by the owner of the motel where he had been staying — and had signed in under his real name. The owner also remembered McVeigh parking a large yellow Ryder truck in the lot.
Further investigation led them to McVeigh’s father’s house, where they tapped the phone. From information obtained from those captured conversations, along with the address McVeigh had been using, investigators were led to the Nichols brothers. Once Terry Nichols learned he was wanted, he turned himself in.
Investigators searched Nichols’ home, where they discovered ammonium nitrate and blasting caps, the electric drill used to drill out the locks at the quarry he had stolen explosives from, books on bomb-making, a copy of Hunter by William Pierce (author of The Turner Diaries), and a hand-drawn map of downtown Oklahoma City — with marks at the Murrah Building and the spot where McVeigh’s getaway car was hidden.
On April 21, back in Perry, McVeigh was taken to his court hearing on the gun charges. Just as he was about to sign the paperwork to be released on bail, an FBI dispatcher called Hangar, asking if they still had Timothy McVeigh in their custody. When Hangar said they did, the FBI dispatcher told him, “Keep him there! Whatever you do, do not let him go!”
McVeigh was taken into custody by the FBI that day. As he walked out of the courthouse, he was surrounded by angry crowds shouting “Baby killer!” and “Murderer!”
The OKBOMB investigation ended in separate trials for McVeigh, Nichols, and Fortier. The trials were moved to Denver, as the defense argued the three could not obtain a fair trial in Oklahoma.
Opening statements in McVeigh’s trial began on April 24, 1997. He initially tried the “imminent danger” defense, arguing he was in imminent danger of the government taking his rights away. However, his lawyers thought it would be better to paint the bombing as an act by a larger conspiracy, with McVeigh only “the designated patsy.” The jury didn’t buy it. They deliberated for 23 hours, and on June 2, 1997, McVeigh was found guilty on 11 counts of murder and conspiracy. He was sentenced to death.
While in Colorado’s Federal Supermax Prison, McVeigh resided in what’s been called “Bombers Row” with the likes of Ted Kaczynski and Ramzi Ahmed Yousef. McVeigh and Kaczynski, unsurprisingly, grew quite close. While he was incarcerated, McVeigh also continued his anti-government crusade, often writing for the right-wing conspiracy magazine Media Bypass.
On June 11, 2001, he was executed by lethal injection at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana — the first federal execution in 38 years. So many people wanted to see McVeigh’s death that a lottery was held for seats to witness the execution, which was also broadcast on closed-circuit television. However, none of his family were present, at his request.
Nichols stood trial twice, first by the federal government in 1997. He was found guilty of eight counts of involuntary manslaughter of federal officers and conspiring to build a weapon of mass destruction. He was sentenced to life without parole.
Then in 2001, the State of Oklahoma sought a death-penalty conviction on 161 counts of first-degree murder. On May 26, 2004, the jury found him guilty on all charges, but deadlocked on the issue of sentencing him to death. In August of 2004, he was given the sentence of 161 consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. He is currently serving his time in the Federal Supermax Prison.
As for Fortier, he and his wife, Lori, were considered accomplices for their involvement with the bombing. In addition to helping McVeigh scout the federal building, Fortier also testified that he received stolen weapons that were sold to finance the bombing, shared money from their sale with McVeigh, handled blasting caps and other explosives, and had the same anti-government literature that McVeigh gave Nichols.
In a plea deal, Fortier agreed to testify against McVeigh and Nichols in exchange for a reduced sentence and immunity for Lori (who had helped create a fake driver’s license which was later used to rent the Ryder truck). On May 27, 1998, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison and fined $75,000 for failing to warn authorities about the attack. On January 20, 2006, after serving over 10 years of his sentence, he was released for good behavior into the Witness Protection Program and given a new identity.
On May 23, 1995, more than a month after the bombing, the Murrah Federal building was demolished. For two years, the site was encircled by a security fence, where thousands of people placed toys, flowers, poems, and other tokens of remembrance and sorrow. Then-Mayor Ron Norick appointed a task force to explore how to memorialize the bombing and honor the victims. An international design competition was held; it garnered 624 entries from all 50 states and 23 countries. The winning design — that of 168 empty chairs — was submitted by a German design company. Shortly afterwards, Pres. Clinton signed a law making the Oklahoma City National Memorial a part of the National Park System. It also authorized $5 million for construction, an amount matched by the State of Oklahoma. More than $17 million of private donations flooded in as well.
The memorial was dedicated on April 19, 2000, the fifth anniversary of the bombing. It is meant to be a place of quiet reflection “to honor those who were killed, those who survived, and those changed forever” by the terrorist attack.
In the wake such a horrific attack, many Americans demanded not just memorials, but action. In June 1995, Congress enacted legislation requiring chemical tags to be incorporated into dynamite and other explosives so that a bomb could be traced to its manufacturer.
However, the push for further legislation making it more difficult for people to obtain bomb-making ingredients was not as successful. In the years since the bombing, scientists, security experts, and the BATF have urged Congress to develop legislation that would require customers to produce identification when purchasing ammonium nitrate fertilizer like that used in the bombing, and for sellers to maintain records of its sale. However, critics argue that farmers lawfully use large quantities of the fertilizer, so they shouldn’t be “tracked.” As of 2009, only two states — Nevada and South Carolina — require identification from ammonium nitrate purchasers.
Another facet of the Oklahoma City bombing response was the push for ever-harsher punishments for those deemed terrorists — such as the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which seeks to to “deter terrorism, provide justice for victims, provide for an effective death penalty” in the words of the bill. It enhanced penalties for terror-related crimes and sought to streamline the federal appellate process for claims arising out of state criminal cases. However, critics point out that in practice, it actually “block[s] from substantive federal judicial review even state appeals that have merit. It turns out that the officials most vociferously supportive of the AEDPA were often those from jurisdictions that had terrible records of wrongful convictions…”
In response to the trials of the conspirators being moved out-of-state, the Victim Allocution Clarification Act of 1997 was signed into law on March 20, 1997, to allow the victims of the bombing (and victims of any other future acts of violence) the right to observe trials and to offer impact testimony in sentencing hearings.
However, arguably the most important response — to study and prevent future attacks from domestic terrorists — was relatively neglected. Right after the bombing, the FBI hired an additional 500 agents to investigate potential domestic terrorist attacks, but after the attacks on 9/11, threats from right-wing terrorists faded from the public eye — and from the FBI’s priorities.
Yet the threat had not gone away — in fact, it got worse. In a report first commissioned by Pres. George W. Bush, the Department of Homeland Security released a report in 2009 stating that “the economic and political climate bears important similarities to the conditions of the early 1990s when right-wing extremism experienced a dramatic resurgence. These conditions, including the public debate around hot-button issues such as immigration, gun control, and abortion, along with the election of the first African-American president, present unique drivers for right-wing radicalization and recruitment.” The report concluded that “lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent rightwing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.” In fact, in 13 of the 17 years that had passed since the bombing, right-wing extremists were responsible for most of the terrorist attacks in the US.
Yet he release of that report drew so much criticism that the director of DHS, Janet Napolitano, withdrew it. After Napolitano withdrew the report, DHS cut the number of analysts studying non-Islamic domestic terrorism.
With few constraints (and quite a few sympathetic elected officials), right-wing terrorism continued to grow during Obama’s presidency, now aided and abetted by the instant reach of social media. Since the election of Donald Trump, non-profits like the SPLC who study hate groups say there has been a surge in right-wing terrorism. In fact, hate crimes tripled the day after his election, and have been rising every year since. Most of these are of the hateful vandalism variety, but assaults on people have gone up as well. Even more troubling, mass killings planned and carried out by people spouting racist, right-wing ideology have been rising as well. Of the 263 incidents of domestic terrorism between 2010 and the end of 2017, a third were committed by right-wing attackers — more than left-wing and radical Islamist attacks combined. In fact, last year was particularly deadly: 49 of the 50 murders committed by extremists were committed by right-wing extremists.
Yet last year, Pres. “fine people on both sides” Trump floated the idea of taking white-supremacist groups off the Countering Violent Extremism’s “Terror Watch Program.” Then — in the wake of escalating right-wing violence — he quietly shut down the DHS’ domestic terrorism unit, reassigning its analysts to new positions.
Timothy McVeigh gives us a perfect case study on how a bright, hard-working young man can become drawn into a violent, criminal underground and indoctrinated into so much hate he is willing to kill innocent victims. We need more resources to study these groups, how to stop their recruitment efforts, and how to de-radicalize those who have joined them. We need to call them what they are — terrorists — and treat them as the threat they are.
*Edited to reflect the shuttering of DHS’ domestic terrorism unit