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McVeigh And Oklahoma City

by Alexander Cockburn

Should the memorial site include information about McVeigh?
Drive along Interstate 40 through Oklahoma City, as I did on a Sunday in late March, and one is encouraged to make a detour into downtown, to whose renewal as a tourist destination McVeigh has made an ironic contribution. From Interstate 40, signs alert travelers to the correct route to the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the only feature of the city deemed worthy of such advertisement.

There were maybe a couple of hundred visitors in any otherwise entirely empty downtown. I parked not so far from where Timothy McVeigh left his Ryder truck packed with 4,800 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil on April 19, 1995, lit the fuse and was walking back to his car when the truck went up at 9:02 a.m., killing 168 people.

There's a chain link fence with various memorabilia stuck to it -- poems by kids and several irritating statements encased in plastic, written by Dr. Paul Heath, self-described bombing "survivor." A typical Heath-gram: "The bombing was surely an evil act that should not have happened. Because of this evil, a white statue of Jesus now stands offsite with its back turned away from away from the site and facing 168 empty spaces in a black stone wall."

The acreage previously occupied by the Alfred P. Murrah federal building now holds a big expanse of water bracketed by two modernist "gates of time," respectively labeled 9:01 and 9:03. South of the pool there are 168 odd looking chairs, with high bronze backs and plastic seats that light up at night, each displaying a name. On a wall nearby, there are the names of "survivors." There's also a "survivor tree" from the 1920s, a sturdy elm that beat not only McVeigh but Dutch elm disease.

The old Journal Record building next door is now a memorial center, also housing an Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. There's audio-visual media evocation of the news noises on April 19, 1995, plus an effective tape of a fellow trying to get his permit to bottle and sell water. This proceeding was going on across the street and on the tape you hear the bomb go off and a sententious voice saying that the permit seeker was using government correctly for peaceful ends, unlike McVeigh.

This is a theme sounded throughout the exhibition in many different ways, none more vigorously than when lauding the Oklahoma citizens and survivors who rushed to Washington, D.C., to press (successfully) for rapid passage of the Effective Death Penalty Act. These are the same people afforded the opportunity to watch McVeigh, scheduled to meet the Reaper this coming May, die on close circuit TV.

The memorial is supposed to educate us about terror and about the bombing, yet an uninformed person could spend several hours in it and leave without knowing anything more about the perpetrator of the Oklahoma bombing, beyond the fact that he was white and his name was McVeigh. You wouldn't know he was born in Pendleton, near Buffalo, that his father was a working man, employed by GM, that McVeigh was an okay student but couldn't get a job in the Reagan recession of the '80s that laid waste to the old industrial Northeast. He did briefly work as a security guard in a warehouse in the awful, racist upstate New York town of Cheektowaga.

Decorated veteran of the Iraqi war? There's no mention of McVeigh's military career. The photographs of McVeigh outside the Branch Davidian compound near Waco during the siege are also nowhere to be found, though they advertise McVeigh's prime stated motivation, to strike back at the federal government that killed over 80 civilians, including 24 children.

McVeigh is certainly more coherent than the memorialists in Oklahoma City, who have produced a self-congratulatory mish mash of kitsch. Take his submission to Media By-Pass in 1998:

Hypocrisy when it comes to the death of children? 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 discussion shifts to Iraq, any day-care center in a government building instantly becomes 'a shield.' Think about that.

My impression was that the visitors to the memorial were unsatisfied by the displays. The memorial could have offered them so much more, had its organizers opted to transcend self-congratulation and banality. How about a weekly drama or even debate in front of the Survivor Tree about the nature of terrorism, a dissection of McVeigh's professed motives, a comparison of terrorist acts around the world, perpetrated by states and by individuals?

But the Memorial's organizers have declined all such avenues of opportunity. Better to sit tight and deal with the onslaught as a vacuum between 9:01 and 9:03, as a terrible piece of bad luck when Mom might not have left her kid off at the child-care center on the second floor. Safer to think of the attack in the Midwestern heartland as a matter involving senselessness and bad luck rather than political events and historical circumstances.

McVeigh is American as apple pie, too, not least in the media-obsessed grotesquerie of his (presumptively) final days, trying to have his "state-assisted suicide" screened on national TV, wishing he could smuggle out his sperm to female admirers, planning to cry out "168 to 1" in his final statement. It's hard to think of last words more evilly moronic.

Oklahoma City could have had the better of the argument, if it had had the guts to confront its assailant squarely.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor April 23, 2001 (

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