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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.