The Life and Death of Timothy
Timothy McVeigh is dead. What can we do so that his death and the deaths that he caused do not leave us even farther from the world that we want? I haven't been to Oklahoma City; I don't really know what it's like to visit the scene of the bombing. I don't know if I would be more affected by the painful memories or turned off by the transformation of meaningful family items (like a stuffed animal) into only sentimental public tokens (like lots of stuffed animals) with no real meaning for most of the people who will look at them. But, especially since the weeks before his execution, I have been struggling to understand the significance of his place in American history.
Timothy McVeigh was an American man at war with America. By the time of the bombing, he appears to have felt no special animosity towards any of his fellow Americans, other than those who worked for agencies he thought to be responsible for assaults against peoples' rights and freedoms (such as the FBI and the ATF), but he refused to accord Americans any special standing among the peoples of the world. Those of us who believe in good wars waged by the government of the United States, or probably by any government anywhere, need to pay close attention to the deeds and political vision of Timothy McVeigh. His willingness to wage war against his fellow Americans and his political justifications for his actions, meager as his own words on the topic are, should cause the rest of us to stop and think about the ways in which this country wages war and the ways in which that war-making inevitably affects those of us unharmed by the bombs and missiles exploding on our television screens.
Timothy McVeigh was not the agent of any foreign power. He bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City because it housed agencies of the American government that had been responsible for crimes against Americans (specifically, the incineration of Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas and the assault on the Weaver family in Ruby Ridge, Idaho). He refused to acknowledge any distinction between those who gave the orders and those who just worked in those agencies. He also refused to acknowledge any distinction between those who were in that building because of their direct involvement with those agencies and those who were merely engaging in normal interactions with other federal agencies, such as those filing for Social Security benefits. According to Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck, the authors of American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh & the Oklahoma City Bombing:
McVeigh had considered targeting specific individuals, among them Lou Horiuchi, the FBI sharpshooter who had killed Randy Weaver's wife, Vicki, at Ruby Ridge. He considered going after a member of the sharpshooter's family, to inflict the same kind of pain the surviving Weaver's had experienced. But ultimately he decided that he would make the loudest statement by bombing a federal building. By destroying people who compiled a complete cross-section of federal employees, McVeigh believed that he was showing federal agents how wrong they were to attack the entire Branch Davidian family. In McVeigh's opinion, every division of the federal government had at one time or another mistreated the public Now, McVeigh decided, was the time to make them all pay.
That's what happens in war. They all pay -- even those whom no one believes should pay. Soldiers die and so do a lot of other people, including children, who play no active role in war-making. (From all accounts, however, McVeigh did not know that there was a childcare center in the building; had he known, he might have changed his plan. He had previously decided not to bomb a federal building in Little Rock, Arkansas because it had a florist shop on the ground floor.)
His concern for protecting some while rather cold-bloodedly anticipating the deaths of others had a logic, albeit a very narrowly constructed one -- a soldier's logic. From Michel and Herbeck:
Timothy McVeigh wanted a body count -- the higher the better. The federal government, he reasoned, had unlimited amounts of cash to replace buildings, but the lives of federal employees could not be replaced. He needed to deliver a quantity of casualties the federal government would never forget. It was the same tactic the American government used in armed international conflicts, when it wanted to send a message to tyrants and despots. It was the United States government that had ushered in this new anything-goes mentality. McVeigh believed, and he intended to show the world what it would be like to fight a war under these new rules, right in the federal government's own backyard.
In one of his relatively few written statements, McVeigh made this connection explicit:
In Oklahoma City, it was family convenience that explained the presence of a day-care center placed between street level and the law-enforcement agencies which occupied the upper floors of the building. Yet when the discussion shifts to Iraq, any day-care center in a government building instantly becomes "a shield." Think about that.
(Actually, there is a difference here. The administration has admitted to knowledge of the presence of children in or near Iraqi government buildings, yet they still proceed with their plans to bomb -- saying they cannot be held responsible if children die. There is no such proof, however, that knowledge of the presence of children existed in relation to the Oklahoma City bombing.)
When considering morality and "mens rea" (criminal intent) in light of these facts, I ask: Who are the true barbarians?
Timothy McVeigh was no "natural born killer." He was born in 1968 and grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo at a time when those suburbs were being drained of jobs and the predictable, tolerably miserable futures those jobs made possible. His childhood appears to have been filled with ups and downs (probably the biggest "down" being the separation and divorce of his parents), but his experiences were not so different from those of a lot of ordinary kids. His father worked for more than thirty years at Harrison Radiator, a company that provided radiators for GM cars. His grandfather had worked there too. But Tim never did. It's not clear if he could have. We shouldn't imagine that there was no way that he could have become connected with that stable world of work and weariness. Even McVeigh had his choices. But his world was not his father's or mother's world.
Eventually, he chose the army. And by all accounts, Tim McVeigh was an excellent soldier. He was an especially excellent shot. He got scores on the gunnery range that no one else got. (It's likely that a good part of the credit for his marksmanship lay with the many hours he spent learning to handle guns and shoot with his grandfather.)
Tim McVeigh got to use his considerable shooting skills on Iraqi soldiers during the Gulf War. And at the moment when his skill brought him praise, his stomach turned. The story's a bit long but it's worth knowing. McVeigh was assigned to a Bradley fighting vehicle under a Lieutenant Rodriguez.
...On the second day of the ground war many of the Iraqis were still surrendering, but off in the distance McVeigh's crew spotted a dug-in enemy machine-gun nest. It was more than a mile away, but Rodriguez knew McVeigh could hit it. He gave the order to fire.
McVeigh saw a flash of light, the apparent source of some Iraqi gunfire. He pressed his forehead against the padded viewfinder, zeroing in on the target. He knew he'd have to adjust his shot slightly to allow for the movement of the rolling Bradley.
An Iraqi soldier popped his head up for a split second.
From his position roughly nineteen football fields away, McVeigh fired, hitting the soldier in the chest. The man's upper body exploded.
"His head just disappeared ... I saw everything above the shoulders disappear, like in a red mist," McVeigh recalls.
The same shot, a 25-mm high-explosive round with the power of a small grenade, killed another Iraqi soldier who was standing a few feet away from the man whom McVeigh was targeting.
"The guy next to him just dropped," McVeigh says. "In the military, you're always supposed to stay at least five meters from anybody, at any time. That's the minimum fragmentation distance for some weapons."
It was an astonishing shot.
"Did you see that?" another gunner exclaimed over the radio. "Great shot!". . .
McVeigh credited the shot to his training, his gunnery skills, and a bit of luck. "I was scanning back and forth. I saw a muzzle flash. That's where instinct takes over. If you're trained enough, you do things by instinct that you later attribute to luck."
Army combat procedures called for McVeigh to fire again. But this time he decided not to follow the book. In his viewfinder, he saw nothing but barren desert and a few surrendering Iraqis.
He stopped shooting.... his lieutenant was not pleased.
"Why'd you stop firing? Keep firing!" Rodriguez said.
"I got 'em, sir," McVeigh said. "I got 'em."
Finally, to satisfy the lieutenant, he fired off a few more rounds, far off into the desert. . . .
McVeigh received the Army Commendation Medal for taking out the Iraqis. Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Moreno wrote that McVeigh had inspired members of his platoon by "destroying an enemy machine-gun emplacement, killing two Iraqi soldiers and forcing the surrender of 30 others from dug-in positions." McVeigh also received four other medals for his service in the Persian Gulf.
But the would-be Rambo was emotionally torn about what he had done. Though he'd been around weapons since he was a boy, this was the first time he had fired at a human being. The two Iraqis were the first lives he had taken. In a way it had been a great thrill, putting his skills to the test and succeeding. But later, as he reflected on his own actions, McVeigh found that his first taste of killing had left him angry and uncomfortable.
As they rolled through the desert, members of McVeigh's platoon saw horribly wounded enemy soldiers, some of them without arms or legs, trying to crawl along the sand. They saw stray dogs chewing on severed body parts.
At one point, members of McVeigh's unit were told to help bury the Iraqi dead in the sand. Later, without explanation, they were told to stop the burials and leave the bodies out where they could be seen.
According to a friend knowledgeable about events in the Middle East, at one point in the aftermath of the defeat of Saddam's forces, American planes gave cover to Saddam's planes as they shot down Iraqi soldiers attempting to organize a revolt against him. I don't think McVeigh would have been surprised. Back to Michel and Herbeck:
Saddam, with his belligerent ways, had started this conflict. But now, as part of the massive Allied fighting force, McVeigh felt as if he were one of the bullies, one of a type he had reviled since childhood. Beating the Iraqis was almost too easy.
It still bothered McVeigh to be part of a war that involved no direct threat to the United States. It rankled him further to be part of a United Nations force that, he feared, was eventually planning to take over the world. Though he tried to justify his killing of two Iraqis by telling himself that the Iraqis were trying to fire on Americans, he knew the enemy machine guns had been too far away to do any damage.
"What made me feel bad was, number one, I didn't kill them in self-defense," McVeigh says now. "When I took a human life, it taught me these were human beings, even though they speak a different language and have different customs. The truth is, we all have the same dreams, the same desires, the same care for our children and our family. These people were humans, like me, at the core."
When Timothy McVeigh joined the army, the United States was poised to assert its unique status as military master of the world. At the same time, while the United States enjoyed a prosperity of sorts, it was no longer a prosperity built on unchallenged US supremacy in industry. When he got home, Tim got to choose from among the pluses and minuses of a world without the kind of stable relationship to a job and a wage that his grandfather and father had pretty much taken for granted. Outside of his years in the army, Timothy McVeigh worked in a Burger King, as a security guard (sometimes armed) for a number of firms or as a salesman at a gun shop and gun shows. One of his security guard assignments involved protecting an abortion clinic during right-to-life protests. And his short-lived efforts to get some civil service-type jobs with the New York State or federal governments were unsuccessful. Outside of a couple of brief encounters, he never had a chance to develop the kind of everyday, self-deprecating, boss-hating and sometimes intimate, relationships that are the bread and butter of life in working class America -- even in those parts of it most distorted by whiteness. He was not alone. In South Boston, discontented young people sought refuge in drugs and crime and created a profoundly self-destructive alternative solidarity to the solidarity of whiteness and work that was the birthright of their parents and relatives (See All Souls by Michael Patrick MacDonald.) In Detroit, young people found comradeship in gangs linked to neo-Nazi organizations (See The Racist Mind by Raphael S. Ezekiel).
In all cases, the futures were bleak but the visible alternatives never included the possibility of proletarian revolution as a world-civilizing project. Those who advocated rebellion or revolution with these young people presented it as the refusal of civilization rather than its fulfillment. At the same time those who had once, in the all-too-brief moment of the 1960s, been the proponents of a civilizing revolution had for the most part withdrawn to more provincial lives of professional work and the raising of children. They had nothing to say to Timothy McVeigh. And at the time McVeigh decided on his course of action, few of the young activists who have since demonstrated their willingness to confront the organized power of the government on the streets of Seattle, Washington, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Quebec City had yet revealed themselves to be as disgusted or prepared as he was.
Timothy McVeigh never claimed to be a race traitor but he does not appear to have been a white supremacist. He did not start a race war. He did not start a race riot. He did not participate in a lynching. He did not bomb a black church. He did not plant a white bomb. He killed people considered by the conventions of our time to be black and white. He probably never thought about it but he might not even have considered himself white. He lived and died at a time when whiteness had been splintered but had not yet been replaced by an anti-whiteness that could serve as the groundwork for a renewed American civilization.
The lost possibilities are painful ones. When all too few appear to be willing to act on the strength of their convictions, Timothy McVeigh, more or less on his own, refused to do anything less. McVeigh came back from the Gulf War a different person. At times he was close to breaking down. On one particularly bad day, it was only the unarticulated kindness and care of his grandfather that saved him. It was a simple matter -- a couch to sleep on and no questions asked. But even the kindness of his grandfather couldn't keep him still. He set off from Buffalo and all but jumped from place to place -- Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Arkansas, Arizona. He reminds me of John Brown and Huck Finn -- although he mostly used beat up cars rather than a horse or a raft. Staying put was the worst danger of all because you might get used to it. But American rootlessness has its dangers as well.
Let me end with the wisdom of fiction. The author's notes included at the end of Juneteenth, Ralph Ellison's posthumously published novel, include the suggestive sentence, "Hickman is 'Jim' and Bliss is 'Huck' who cut out for the territory." In Ellison's novel, Hickman is an almost godly black minister and Bliss is a polished white supremacist whom Hickman had raised. When Huck Finn announces at the end of Mark Twain's novel that he is setting out for the territory (Oklahoma), he doesn't realize the danger for his soul when he no longer has the benefit of contact with Jim.
From the moment Timothy McVeigh set out from Buffalo to the moment he arrived in that same Oklahoma, he never had the benefit of sustained contact with the Jims of our day. Had he had it, he might have done something different from what he did. He might even have become the John Brown of our day. It's a shame he didn't. We all bear some of the responsibility.
RACE TRAITOR - Fall 2001