The bombing that decimated Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building may be more than 20 years in the past, but with 168 dead, including 19 children, it remains the deadliest example of home-grown terrorism, a somber reminder of the kind of damage that enraged Americans are capable of doing to each other.
But though the bombing’s perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh, was quickly apprehended, the answer to a question posed at the time remains tantalizingly out of reach. As an FBI agent surveying the scene put it, “How could somebody get so upset that they’d do something like this?”
Veteran filmmaker Barak Goodman persuasively replies to that query in his somber, thorough “Oklahoma City,” a chilling documentary that firmly positions McVeigh not as some delusional loner but rather as a product of a far-right subculture that looked on the U.S. federal government as one of the most dangerous forces on the face of the Earth.
In effect, McVeigh, who wanted to be a martyr and dreamed of starting another American Revolution, saw himself as a combatant in a conflict most of his fellow citizens had no idea was going on.
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“To me it was a counterattack, the war had already started,” he says of the bombing in one of the jailhouse interviews Goodman has had access to. “You think you can be ruthless? Let’s see how you like it when the fighting is brought to you.”
Goodman, who’s won Emmys for “My Lai” and “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy,” goes back and forth between the planning, execution and aftermath of the bombing itself and an in-depth investigation of the events that radicalized McVeigh and others like him, leading them to believe in the existence of, as a headline in the far-right newspaper Spotlight claimed, “Undeclared War Against Christian America.”
“Oklahoma City” begins with an audio recording of the blast itself, heard at a meeting of the city’s Water Resources Board at precisely 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995.
This is followed by newsreel footage of the unimaginable damage and stories related by those who were there or arrived soon after, like parents whose children were trapped in the building’s day-care center.
Also related is McVeigh’s personal history as a bully-hating, gun-loving kid in upstate New York who thought he’d found a home in the Army until a disillusioning tour of duty in the first Gulf War led to a sour experience washing out of the Army’s Ranger School.
Just as compelling, if not more so, is the film’s careful examination of the origins of the United States’ right-wing extremist movement, starting with the Aryan Nation finding sanctuary in northern Idaho in the 1980s. Inspired by an apocalyptic novel, “The Turner Diaries” by William Luther Pierce, an offshoot of the nationalist movement formed a militia called the Order and, among other acts, murdered liberal talk radio host Alan Berg.
Also attracted to northern Idaho, in part simply because it was remote, was Randy Weaver.
Attempts to turn him into a federal informant backfired, and the result was a shootout at his home on Ruby Ridge that led to the death of Weaver’s wife and son as well as a U.S. marshal and inflamed anti-government sentiment.
Just months later a similar confrontation at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, had an even more violent outcome, with the deaths of 76 people.
McVeigh, who visited the Waco siege, was deeply disturbed by the outcome as well as by the passage of the Brady Bill, which mandated a waiting period for the purchase of handguns. Convinced that the federal government was part of a conspiracy to take America’s guns away, he was determined to act.
“Oklahoma City” explores McVeigh’s reasons for choosing the day (the anniversary of the attack on the Waco compound) and the site (he thought a high body count was necessary to get America’s attention) and details the intensive police work that led to his capture only three days later.
McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001 (two associates escaped the death penalty) and by all reports was proud of what he did to the end. He had no last words, but it is impossible to escape the feeling that his philosophy and beliefs are alive and well to this day.
“Oklahoma City” will show as part of the “American Experience” series at 9 p.m. Tuesday on PBS.