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Remembering the Oklahoma City Bombing, 25 Years Later

The primary lesson is that right-wing extremism is a feature, not a bug, of American politics, writes Brennan Center Fellow Andrew Cohen.

April 21, 2020
OKC memorial
Education Images/Getty

A nation forever changed by the new coronavirus should never forget another dark moment in its history. It’s been exactly 25 years since Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, and likely “others unknown” conspired to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in downtown Oklahoma City. The anti-government, racist zealots murdered 168 people, including 19 children, on the morning of April 19, 1995, when they blew up a yellow Ryder rental truck filled with homemade explosives McVeigh had parked directly below a day-care center in the building.

The Oklahoma City bombing and the resulting criminal trials represented the height (or the nadir if you will) of the militia movement of the 1990s. The right-wing extremists who embraced and nurtured McVeigh and Nichols, and who in turn were inspired by them, had risen up during the Clinton presidency. Enraged by the siege at Waco in April 1993, they hoped that an act of domestic terrorism would spawn some sort of armed revolution — much like the 9/11 terrorists who thought that taking down the World Center would lead to war.

They were tragically wrong. The militia movement after McVeigh’s blast largely faded into the background until the next Democratic president took office. No coincidence. The right-wing extremist movement that emerged during the Obama administration is with us today, egged on by a president who has repeatedly enabled white supremacist policies. All the more reason why we should not forget the act of war these home-grown extremists waged against the American people or what their continuing assaults mean for American law and politics.

McVeigh, an Army veteran, was caught speeding away from the scene of the crime. Nichols, the junior partner in the plot, was arrested in nearby Kansas. Both men were convicted of the crime. McVeigh was sentenced to death in 1997 and executed on June 11, 2001, after waiving federal appeals that would have kept him alive for years longer. He died with his eyes open, staring into the closed-circuit camera of the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, set up to show his death by lethal injection to bombing survivors back in Oklahoma.

Nichols, who just turned 65 years old, is still alive. Neither the federal jury in Denver nor a state jury in Oklahoma was willing to sentence him to death. After apologizing to his victims at the end of his state trial in 2004, after finally expressing remorse, Nichols today is serving out a federal life sentence at the “Supermax” prison in Florence, Colorado. He shares prison space with other terrorists, men like Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber,” and Ramzi Youssef, convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center attack.

It is sadly fitting that we should observe during a deadly pandemic the 25th anniversary of what was until the 9/11 the deadliest terrorist attack in American history. So many of the heroes of 1995 are our heroes today. Even as fires raged inside the Murrah building 25 years ago first responders rushed in to try to rescue innocent victims. Even as the toll of dead and injured mounted in downtown Oklahoma city doctors and nurses strained to help. Even as we prayed for survivors the stories of the dead swallowed us in grief.

I covered the entirety of the Oklahoma City bombing and sat in on both federal trials in Denver. Never shall I forget the sorrow of Helena Garrett, a mother whose 16-month-old son, Tevin, was murdered by racist hate and whose testimony left virtually everyone inside the courtroom in tears. Never shall I forget I forget the opening statement of federal prosecutor Joseph Hartzler, who took McVeigh’s twisted view of “tyranny” and turned it on its head. Never shall I forget the sound of the cheers in Denver when the McVeigh verdict was announced.

And never before, or since, have I been as proud of our justice system. The trial judge in both federal cases, Nixon-appointee U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch, the “anti-Ito,” handled the most important cases of his life with wisdom and grace. The work of Michael Tigar, for Nichols in the federal case, was among the finest I have seen in decades of work as a national legal analyst. America lost many things when it chose not to try the 9/11 conspirators in federal civilian court. Among them was the opportunity to remind us all that the system usually works.

There are many lessons we can take from the bombing and its aftermath. The foremost is that right-wing extremism is a feature, not a bug, of modern American politics. Present since the Kennedy years, it flared up again during the Clinton administration and, as my Brennan Center for Justice colleague Michael German has noted, never really went away during the subsequent years of the Bush presidency. And now the Trump administration has allowed the bigotry at the heart of the movement during the Obama presidency to metastasize.

Another lesson from April 1995 is that the vast majority of the American people, regardless of political persuasion or party, recoil at the senselessness of such political violence. This was true in 1995 when McVeigh and Nichols took down the Murrah building, it was true in 2001 when the hijackers took down the World Trade Center, and it’s true whenever the mixture of racism and hatred rears up to take innocent life in this country. It is only a matter of time before we are forced to endure another spasm of this type of violence. Whether we weather it as nobly and strongly as we did a quarter century ago is, tragically, an open question today.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.