By Dr. Mark Pitcavage
On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb in front of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The blast destroyed the building, killing 168 men, women and children and injuring hundreds more.
Twenty-five years later, the Oklahoma City bombing remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in American history. McVeigh and his accomplice, Terry Nichols, were not part of any large, well-funded terrorist organization; they were American extremists acting on their own. Today, their deadly legacy is one of the inspirations for a new and violent segment of the white supremacist movement.
Despite the passing of time, the bombing remains all-too-relevant today. McVeigh and Nichols were right-wing extremists, part of the anti-government “Patriot” movement (McVeigh also had white supremacist leanings). The anti-government extremist and white supremacist movements surged in the 1990s; the Murrah Building bombing was only the worst of a series of right-wing terrorist plots and attacks during that time.
In 2001, the 9/11 terror attacks organized and directed by Al Qaeda diverted American public policy and law enforcement attention away from the problem of right-wing extremism, but right-wing violence did not disappear. In 2008-2011, the U.S. witnessed another surge of right-wing extremism; analysis indicates the election of the first black president as a trigger point for many who espouse bigotry based on race, color, or national origin.
Today, we are several years into a third resurgence of right-wing extremism, fueled by the rise of the alt right segment of the white supremacist movement. From 2016 through 2019, white supremacists alone killed 116 people in the United States in terrorist attacks, hate crimes and other violent acts. Other right-wing movements, including anti-government extremists, added 21 more deaths to the grisly toll. Right-wing extremists have been involved in 37 terrorist attacks or plots in the past four years.
In the midst of this resurgence, Timothy McVeigh’s name is cropping up again in some extremist circles. After the Oklahoma City bombing, both anti-government extremists and white supremacists rushed to disown McVeigh and distance themselves from his heinous act. McVeigh did not become a hero to the majority of the far right.
The recent emergence of so-called “accelerationist” white supremacy, however, has resurrected McVeigh. Accelerationists are white supremacists who believe that modern society is unreformable and irredeemable; they seek a complete societal collapse, which will allow them to build a white supremacist civilization from the ashes.
Accelerationists celebrate any crisis — the coronavirus, for example — that might weaken societal foundations. They applaud acts of violence, no matter how senseless, as contributions to the destabilization of society, and encourage one another to commit such acts.
Accelerationists often refer to white supremacists who have committed significant acts of lone wolf violence as “saints.” Brenton Tarrant, the Australian white supremacist whose murderous 2019 rampage against mosques in New Zealand, is currently the most popular “saint.” Tarrant himself was influenced by earlier killers, including Dylann Roof and Anders Breivik, whom accelerationists also consider “saints.”
Now McVeigh, too, has been elevated to sainthood by accelerationists. “Saint Tarrant is fresh in our minds,” one 4chan user posted in April 2019, “…but let us not forget the martyrs of yore. Remember Saint McVeigh the Martyr.” In an undated “Timothy McVeigh appreciation thread” on the Zig Forums, one poster wrote, “people praise Tarrant or Breivik, but McVeigh is the real MVP.” A few more like him, the poster added, “…would destroy the current world order.”
These accelerationists invoke the names of these “saints” to radicalize more people to commit acts of violence. And some answer the hateful call.
In October 2018, Robert Bowers killed 11 people and wounded six more in a shooting attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Six months later, John Earnest launched a shooting attack at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California. He killed one person and injured three more before his gun jammed.
In August 2019, Patrick Crusius killed 22 people and wounded 24 more in a shooting attack targeting Hispanics in El Paso, Texas.
Just last month, another white supremacist, Timothy Wilson, was killed in a shootout with the FBI in Kansas City, Missouri, as they attempted to arrest him for a plot to blow up a local hospital housing coronavirus victims.
None of these extremists have yet matched McVeigh’s deadly toll. But they are trying—and the nation may be closer now to the next Oklahoma City-scale right-wing terrorist event than it has been in decades. We must make sure that doesn’t happen.
Mark Pitcavage is a Senior Research Fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism and a historian of the extreme right.