Oklahoma City, Columbine and Waco in Popular Memory

What image comes to your mind when you think of the Oklahoma City bombing ?  

 The destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah  Federal Building on April 19, 1995, in which 168 people lost their lives and hundereds were injured  seems to have paled in significance in the shadow of the much larger and more historic events in New York  City six-and-a-half years later.    The memory has faded, but not simply as a result of  the passage of  time.  It is because it is far easier to picture outsiders conducting such a heinous attack upon American individuals than  it is to consider them perpetrated by home born citizens.

That it was indeed an American who set the fuse which brought down the building and damaged 384 others in the immediate vicinity, is still hard for many to fathom.   Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nicols may have been very disturbed young men with wildly grandisose projections of themselves as true patriots, but they had nonetheless served in the armed forces and at one time lived fairly normal suburban lives with loving families.

How does it happen that someone grows up to be Timothy McVeigh?  The same question can be asked about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold  the eighteen- year-olds who eleven years ago in this same week, ran amock at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado killing 12 students and injuring six before killing themselves.

And seven years before them, the seige of the Branch Davidian sect at Waco, Texas had ended in tragedy after a 51 day seige resulting in all 75 inmates of the compound dying in a conflagration ordered by the sect’s leader, David Koresh.

All three events are inextricably linked.  McVeigh fixed on the date of April 19 to commemorate the Waco seige.   At his trial, he wanted his attorney, Stephen Jones, to present a “necessity defense”—which would have argued that he was in “imminent danger” and that his bombing was intended to prevent future crimes by the government, “such as the Waco and Ruby Ridge incidents. ”

A journal found in Harris’ bedroom described events such as the Oklahoma City bombing and  Waco, and noted  how the two wished to “outdo” these atrocities, focusing especially on what Timothy McVeigh had accomplished in Oklahoma City.

In the six years which separated these three events, the media became rife with speculation about a home grown far right wing conspiracy which had taken hold of  a sector of the U.S. population.  It is alleged that many nascent  plots were hatched and then foiled before they occured.  But no united conspiracy was ever discovered and there has been no other events quite like them since.

What then inspired these men and teenagers to wreak such damage and permanently affect the lives of hundreds of people?   Both Harris and Kelobold, unhappy and unpopular young men, had mentioned how they wanted to leave a lasting impression on the world through violence.  The disaffected McVeigh wanted to change history and to make a statement through an act of political theater.  David Koresh claimed that he was the new King Cyrus and a Messiah to boot.

In all of them a malignant narcissism reigned, encouraged and inflamed by local circumstances and popular culture, but in the end, operating as a  fatal personality disorder that led to the slaughter of innocent Americans in the name of a higher good.

There was, then, no conspiracy, no ideology and no political platform that linked these three crimes.  What linked them was a depserate need for attention that could only be satiated by a spectacular act of destruction. 

As we remember these tragic events today and seek to explain them to ourselves we should not forget that, yes, all the perpetrators were Americans.  But first and foremost  they were highly distrubed and disaffected human beings, for whom violence became a key to opening the door to everlasting fame and attention.


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