Twenty years ago, on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a massive truck bomb in front of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. This attack, which killed 168 men, women and children and injured hundreds more, remains the worst act of domestic (as opposed to international) terrorism in United States history.
The immediate impact of the bombing was obvious. The attack not only caused death and destruction but created a storm of media coverage covering this “attack on the heartland.” A secondary theme portrayed America’s “lost innocence.”
The fact that the attack was an act of domestic terrorism took the country by surprise. The media covered the bombing intensely not merely because of the enormity and scale of the attack but also because it seemed to represent something new. The most-scrutinized act of terrorism in recent years had been the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, an act of international terrorism, but the attack on the Murrah building was committed by American citizens targeting their own government with a deadliness hitherto un-witnessed.
The media also rediscovered the dangerousness of the extreme right, a topic neglected since the mid-1980s. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols led reporters to the militia movement, whose ideology the Oklahoma City bombers shared. Stories about the militia movement blanketed the nation.
If the media was playing catch up, so too was law enforcement, which the bombing took by surprise. Indeed, the 1994 edition of Terrorism in the United States, the FBI’s annual report on international and domestic terrorism, had just given short shrift to domestic terrorism in general. The report’s section on domestic terrorism devoted most of its attention to violent acts by left-wing Puerto Rican independence activists and to animal rights and environmental extremists such as the Animal Liberation Front.
In contrast, the report spent only a paragraph describing the terrorist threat from right-wing extremists. It did not even mention the rapidly growing militia and sovereign citizen movements, nor make any reference to the anger generated within right-wing extremist movements by the standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and Waco, Texas, in 1993. The federal government seemed to have little understanding of the extreme right in the United States at the time of the Oklahoma City bombing.
After the bombing, everything changed. The FBI shifted its priorities, reassigning large numbers of agents to work domestic terrorism cases and hiring many new agents. It significantly expanded the number of Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the country and went to Congress with a lengthy “want” list. The Justice Department funded an anti-terrorist training program for senior state and local law enforcement executives.
The increased scrutiny of right-wing extremist groups and individuals resulted in a large number of arrests of anti-government extremists and white supremacists over the next few years, primarily on weapons, explosives, and conspiracy charges. It turned out that McVeigh and Nichols were hardly alone. When, in 1999, the FBI issued an analysis dubbed Project Megiddo, warning about potential dangers posed by religious and ideological extremists during the turn of the millennium, right-wing extremism was not ignored as it had been five years earlier.
On April 19, 2000, five years to the day after the Oklahoma City bombing, the Oklahoma National Memorial and Museum was officially dedicated, seemingly cementing the tragedy in America’s consciousness. But Edward T. Linenthal, a scholar who wrote about the development of the Memorial in The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory, wasn’t sure what the future would bring. Would the Memorial become an enduring part of national memory? Or perhaps, he asked, might “a future terrorist act that inflicts even more death consign Oklahoma City to a less prestigious location on the landscape of violence?”
The Unfinished Bombing debuted in October 2001, just weeks after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. The horrific events of that day definitively answered Linenthal’s question, the scale and scope of the 9/11 attacks understandably pushing the 1995 bombing from center stage. The 9/11 attacks, by their very destructiveness, helped to relegate the Oklahoma City bombing to a side exhibit in the national memory—to somewhere in the background of Linenthel’s “landscape of violence.” The 9/11 attacks were larger, far more deadly, and committed by a more faceless, harder-to-comprehend enemy, whether defined as Al Qaeda or more broadly as violent Islamic radicals in general.
As swiftly as the public eye had focused on extreme right movements after the Oklahoma City bombing, it now dropped them after September 11. The government, law enforcement and the media all rushed to grapple with the issue of Islamic extremism. Certainly, with a scale of death and destruction much larger than the April 1995 bombing, the 9/11 attacks warranted more attention. Of that, there is no question.
However, the 9/11 attacks, in so completely shifting attention away from Oklahoma City, as opposed to expanding national attention to encompass the dangers of both right-wing extremism and radical Islamism, in a sense appropriated part of the legacy and significance that the Oklahoma City bombing had to offer. It was as if the collective consciousness could only contemplate one terrorist threat at a time, rather than the multiple threats that the nation usually faces.
Even conspiracy theorists, who had built up a cottage industry claiming that the federal government was itself responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, now transferred those same ideas to the 9/11 attacks with the development of the so-called “9/11 Truth” movement. Moreover, the shift was not temporary but seemingly permanent. Today, a Google search on “9/11 attacks” will return more than 10 times as many results as a search on “Oklahoma City bombing.”
The result of this shift is that the significance of the Oklahoma City bombing, particularly in terms of its service as a warning of the dangers of domestic extremist movements, became somewhat truncated. The September 11 attacks in effect created two types of significance for the bombing: the importance that the bombing has actually had over the past 20 years and the importance that it could have had over these past years.
After all, it is not as if right-wing extremism disappeared after September 11. The history of right-wing extremism from 1995 to the present day has been one of a steady stream of plots, conspiracies, terrorist acts, and hate crimes. The recent history of extremist violence in the United States has in most respects been dominated by right-wing extremists.
To use just one measure, from January 1995 to the present day, the Anti-Defamation League has identified a minimum of 583 murders committed by right-wing extremists (including the Oklahoma City bombing victims) in the United States. This is a figure that greatly surpasses the deaths caused by other domestic extremists (left-wing extremists and anarchists, religious extremists, etc.). Domestic Islamic extremists come in second with 18 deaths and all other extremist movements together contribute a mere handful.
These statistics are not meant to minimize the threat posed by Islamic extremism, either domestic or international, to the United States. Domestic Islamic extremists are responsible for a great many of the terrorist plots and conspiracies of recent years, for example. Foreign terrorist groups use the Internet to inspire violence within the U.S.—and sometimes, as with the Boston Marathon bombing, succeed. Islamic extremism is a very real threat to the United States.
But the statistics do illustrate that American “homegrown violent extremism,” to use a currently popular phrase, is not limited to extremism motivated by radical interpretations of Islam. The anger and hate that generated the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 is still around in 2015—and still dangerous. Indeed, beginning in 2009 a major resurgence of right-wing extremism emerged in the United States, one that has in the past several years generated a large number of violent acts and conspiracies.
The twentieth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing provides a new opportunity to ensure that its significance does not disappear. What 1995 and 2001 together teach is that the United States faces threats both from abroad and from within its own extremist fringes. Consequently, we must have the wisdom and capability to respond effectively and intelligently to ideological violence stemming from all sources. That would be the most positive way to pay homage to the victims of April 19, 1995.