The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory

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On April 19, 1995 the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City shook the nation, destroying our complacent sense of safety and sending a community into a tailspin of shock, grief, and bewilderment. Almost as difficult as the bombing itself has been the aftermath, its legacy for Oklahoma City and for the nation, and the struggle to recover from this unprecedented attack.
In The Unfinished Bombing, Edward T. Linenthal explores the many ways Oklahomans and other Americans have tried to grapple with this catastrophe. Working with exclusive access to materials gathered by the Oklahoma City National Memorial Archive and drawing from over 150 personal interviews with family members of those murdered, survivors, rescuers, and many others. Linenthal looks at how the bombing threatened cherished ideas about American innocence, sparked national debate on how to respond to terrorism at home and abroad, and engendered a new "bereaved community" in Oklahoma City itself. Linenthal examines how different stories about the bombing were told through positive narratives of civic renewal and of religious redemption and more negative narratives of toxicity and trauma. He writes about the extraordinary bonds of affection that were created in the wake of the bombing, acts of kindness, empathy, and compassion that existed alongside the toxic legacy of the event. The Unfinished Bombing offers a compelling look at both the individual and the larger cultural consequences of one of the most searing events in recent American history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A priceless microcosm of hindsight in advance. Many books about the recent attacks have been published, but none of them can achieve what Linenthal offers: a carefully researched and thought-out study of a culture of aftermath. The value of this book is simple: It has the benefit of the passage of time."—Newsday

Readers still reeling from thousands of deaths in New York City, Washington, and Pennsylvania have much to learn from Linenthal's patient account of the aftermath of another recent national trauma."—Steven G. Kellman, USA Today

"Written before Sept. 11, yet there's no mistaking the lessons for New York in Oklahoma City's journey of public discourse and private healing."—New York Daily News

"A poignant new look at the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building.... Linenthal's book is much more than just another account of the disaster, especially to Oklahomans who lived through the continuous media coverage.... He examines with the precision of a surgeon the different ways the Oklahoma City bombing has been interpreted.... This book is great and timely reading, in light of the Sept. 11 attacks."—Bob Burke, The Daily Oklahoman

"Linenthal movingly relates the tortuous process of body identification, family notification, grief counseling, and burial ceremonies and then offers a painstakingly detailed account of the memorialization process and its culmination in the choice of a memorial design.... A revealing, empathetic analysis that fairly examines this tragic act of terror, the worst on U.S. soil until this September."—Library Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195161076
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 5/28/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 9.20 (w) x 6.10 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward Linenthal is Professor of History and editor of the Journal of American History at Indiana University.

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Read an Excerpt

The Unfinished Bombing

Oklahoma City in American Memory
By Edward Tabor Linenthal

Oxford University Press

Copyright ©2003 Edward Tabor Linenthal
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0195161076

Chapter One

Falling into History

Convictions of Innocence

"Things like this aren't supposed to happen in places like Oklahoma City."

"Downtown Oklahoma City looked more like Beirut than America."

Whether in immediate reaction or in comments people offered some years later, incomprehension characterized people's response to the bombing, which violated the assumed security and sanctity of the "heartland." Perhaps, people would say, this kind of thing might be expected to happen in New York or Los Angeles, hybrid cities at the nation's periphery, but not in middle America.

The sense of astonishment at the violation of the nation's interior was accompanied by incredulity at how evil could strike down innocents, and, within several days of the bombing, by the stunning news that Americans were responsible. For example, appearing on CBS This Morning the day after the bombing, Oklahoma Senator Don Nickles said, "to think that somebody could be so criminal, so evil that they'd be willing to do such a ... a cowardly thing as destroy human ... innocent lives, it's ... it's almost beyondcomprehension." Several years later, on June 14, 1997, the day after Timothy McVeigh was sentenced to death, one of the jurors said, "I mean, this is an American killing an American. You don't think that about somebody in your country doing this."

How, in the last years of the twentieth century, so prominently stained by the deaths of millions of innocents through war, genocide, political torture, human slavery, and state-sponsored famine, could the bombing seem to reveal some as yet untapped revelation of human evil? And how, given the rich history of American violence, could there be such widespread disbelief about yet another enactment of mass murder on American soil? As we have seen, the bombing was immediately proclaimed the single worst act of domestic terrorism in the nation's history. What seemed incomprehensible was not the act itself, but that Americans were responsible for it.

The public saw the stark reality of the bombing on television—the ruins of the Murrah Building and the surrounding area, the bloodied adults and children who survived, the shock, despair, and anguish of family members looking for loved ones—but these "facts" did not immediately make sense. There was, seemingly, nowhere in the storehouse of American meaning to place the bombing, to make sense of it. It was, quite literally, "out of place." Through some murderous alchemy, Oklahoma City had become Beirut.

Life magazine expressed this reaction. Accompanying photographs of victims and personal items recovered from the site—a child's sneaker, the remains of a silk blouse—the editors observed,

Even in a world accustomed to acts of violence on a battlefield that has no rules, we still harbored a few comforting assumptions. The bombing swept them away. This can't happen here—far from the country's urban edges, deep in the farm belt, a quintessentially secure and American landscape. This can't happen to children—children as young as three months, about to drink their breakfast juice in the day-care center that lay at the epicenter of the blast. This must be the work of sophisticated international terrorists—not, as alleged, of a crew-cut young ex-GI armed with fuel oil and a load of fertilizer, a man as nondescript as the building he is accused of bombing.

The bombing activated enduring convictions that Americans were peaceable citizens of an innocent and vulnerable nation in a largely wicked world. Thus the evocative power of headlines: "Myth of Midwest safety shattered"; "After bombing, we'll never feel the same"; "American innocence buried in Oklahoma," where the "new tomb" was characterized as a grave for both "American innocents" and "American innocence."

Throughout the nation's history, of course, Americans often understood their human nature and their world as something new. Unsullied by other nation's vices, the American could begin the world anew, be it through the Puritan mission to build the kingdom of God in an "empty" land or through the regeneration of the human species through a new creation: the American individual. R. W. B. Lewis characterized this original personality as "an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self propelling." In American newness, Lewis observed, is found innocence. "Moral position" he wrote, "was prior to experience."

Throughout the nation's history, a whole host of events were widely pronounced to have brought an end to the state of innocence: controversial wars widely viewed as imperial ventures (e.g. the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War) industrialization, which transformed the rural identity of the nation and exacerbated class tensions, slavery and the mass slaughter of the Civil War, the enduring problem of racial violence, any number of examples of the nation's domestic failure to live up to its ideals, the advent of the nuclear age, and most recently the war in Vietnam, through which, as cultural analyst Morris Dickstein observed, "the 'idea' of America, the cherished myth of America" was damaged, perhaps beyond repair.

Convictions of innocence endured, however, to be activated yet again when a people seemingly liberated from history and tradition greeted new crises as unprecedented. They also helped locate the bombing as Americans understood themselves as citizens of an innocent nation in a wicked world. If Oklahoma City had become Beirut, it was the fault of aliens. Consequently, the bombing became comprehensible as an expression of imported violence.

Immediately after the bombing it was, as David Nyhan predicted in the Boston Globe, "suspect time" in America. What follows "will not be nice." There was an immediate and widespread call to arms against Muslim terrorists. Editorials called for a military response, perhaps even against foreign governments that sponsored this act of terrorism. If the terrorists were unknown, and thereby safe from the nation's rage, there were those who resembled them in our midst, and that rage fell on them.

"We Have Met the Enemy—and He Is Anyone but Us," wryly observed Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice. Motivated in large part by reckless and irresponsible journalistic accusations that satisfied the convictions of innocence, Muslims were terrorized throughout the nation. For example, a mosque in Stillwater, Oklahoma, was damaged by a drive-by shooting, other mosques were vandalized or received bomb threats, and Muslims were physically assaulted and called "sand niggers." Shouting "it's a bomb" someone threw a bag into a playground at a Muslim day care center in Dallas, Texas.

Nightline's Ted Koppel reported on the evening of April 19 that the Oklahoma City Police Department was looking for "two Middle Eastern men," and a host of self-proclaimed terrorism "experts" joined prominent administration officials, politicians, and journalists in blaming Islamic terrorists for the deed. For example, William Webster, former director of the CIA and FBI, observed that the bombing had the "hallmarks" of Middle Eastern terrorism. CBS's Connie Chung informed viewers that "U.S. government sources told CBS News that it has Middle East terrorism written all over it." Steven Emerson, who produced the controversial program Jihad in America for Public Television, characterized Oklahoma City as "one of the centers for Islamic radicalism outside the Middle East" and asserted that the bombing's purpose was to "inflict as many casualties as possible. That is a Middle Eastern trait."

Even after sketches of two white men were publicized on April 20 as possible perpetrators, CNN's Wolf Blitzer said "there is still a possibility that there could have been some sort of connection to Middle East terrorism. One law enforcement source tells me that there's a possibility that this may have been contracted out as freelancers to go out and rent this truck that was used in this bombing."

Stereotyping of Muslims continued incessantly on talk radio shows. Those listening to one of the most virulent, the Bob Grant Show on WABC in New York City, heard a caller declare that "we're going to have more bombings, and we can't stop it, because these people—like you said, it's a violent religion." Grant replied, "It is violent, it is violent.... They preach violence, for heaven's sake!" Practicing his own kind of rhetorical violence, Grant responded to a caller who objected to blaming Muslims: "the indications are that those people who did it were some Muslim terrorists. But a skunk like you, what I'd like to do is put you up against the wall with the rest of them, and mow you down along with them. Execute you with them. Because you obviously have a great hatred for America, otherwise you wouldn't talk the way you talk, you imbecile."

Muslim groups in Oklahoma City and throughout the nation issued statements condemning the bombing and pleaded for the media not to fan the flames of violence. Muslim physicians in Oklahoma City volunteered at area hospitals, and Muslim groups nationwide sent letters of condolence to the mayor's and governor's offices, and they held blood drives and fundraisers. Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, one of the few who cautioned against the rush to blame Islamic terrorists, wrote Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, thanking him for the council's relief efforts. "I am immensely proud of Oklahomans of all races, creeds, and faiths," the governor declared. "May Allah bless you always."

Also coming under suspicion as being capable of carrying out an act of retribution were the nation's own "aliens," the survivors of the federal government's attack on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993. Davidians in federal prison were taken out of the general prison population and placed in confinement; several were questioned about the bombing and had their cells searched. Branch Davidian survivor Clive Doyle, joining approximately forty survivors and others at the Mount Carmel compound for a memorial service the morning of the Oklahoma City bombing, said "in no way are the Branch Davidians connected with the bombing.... The date is the only connection."

The arrest of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, as well as mounting evidence against them, within a few days of the bombing abruptly ended most anti-Muslim violence. Interpretive strategies portrayed McVeigh and Nichols as "in" but not "of" America, peripheral beings who did not threaten convictions of innocence. Harper's publisher John MacArthur was skeptical of such efforts. "They are going to turn them into oddball crazies, caricaturing McVeigh as a trailer park terrorist, which is no better than the caricature of the Arabs." Indeed, portraying both men as "animals," "monsters," "drifters," "loners," "right-wingers," "robots," "mutated creatures," served to separate them from "real" Americans.

Their acts, it was argued, had made them domestic aliens. George Will assured readers that "paranoiacs have always been with us but have never defined us," and Time's Lance Morrow declared that the bombing occurred at the "delusional margins."

The need to distance McVeigh and Nichols from the national body was evidenced in June 1997, when the Denver Post revealed that despite his crimes, McVeigh, who received a Bronze Star in the Gulf War, was eligible for military burial benefits: "a grave site, perpetual care of the site, a headstone, a presidential memorial certificate and burial flags." Tom Blackburn, the commander of a Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Oklahoma City responded, "The only military thing he deserves is a military firing squad." Another Oklahoma veteran disagreed, saying that because he "served his country honorably and received an honorable discharge," McVeigh had earned the right to be buried in a military cemetery but should not receive military burial honors. (On Friday, November 2l, 1997, President Clinton signed "without comment" legislation "barring McVeigh from burial in a national cemetery because of his conviction.")

In contrast to McVeigh and Nichols, "real" America, pundits declared, was represented by citizens—survivors, family members, rescuers—who demonstrated courage in the face of such searing loss. For example, even as it worried about the "soul and character of America," U.S. News and World Report assured its readers that while the perpetrators represented a "strain of evil in American society," the lesson to take from Oklahoma City "says something important about the American character: It's still incandescent." Utah Senator Orrin Hatch declared that the perpetrators "are not Americans in my book. The true Americans are the men, women and children who were killed.... Americans are the rescue workers.... Americans are all of us who share the same moral outrage."

Another interpretive strategy, however, took direct aim at the convictions of innocence. Far from being an innocent nation in a wicked world, America was diagnosed as suffering from a potentially terminal case of spiritual rot, "heartland pathology," an illness of the civic body that mass-produced the Timothy McVeighs and Terry Nichols of the culture. "We are, and we have always been," observed the New Republic, "an ugly people, fascinated by force, uneasy about difference, enchanted by absolutes. A great country with a darkness to match."

This interpretive take, far from viewing McVeigh and Nichols as domestic aliens, understood them as quintessentially American, securely located in the nation's tradition of populist violence. This dark vision resurrected alternative histories and paid attention to violent values and events that were understood to be as defining of the American experience as were the virtues revealed in rescue and recovery efforts in Oklahoma City.

Connecticut College historian Catherine McNicol Stock, beginning her study with Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, argued that rural radicalism is "older than the nation itself." Some recalled the history of terrorist acts against Native Americans and African Americans, who had long known there were no zones of safety in America. Cheyenne memories turned to the slaughter of Cheyenne people at Sand Creek on November 29, 1864 or Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's controversial attack on the Cheyenne village of Black Kettle on the Washita on November 27, 1868.

Others recalled white terrorism in the Reconstruction South, the enduring terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, the Haymarket Riot of 1886, the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, and the September 15, 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young girls. The Oklahoma City bombing also resurrected memories of the 1927 bombing of a schoolhouse in Bath, Michigan, by a farmer angry that a tax increase for the school would force him to foreclose. The blast killed forty-five people, including thirty-eight children. Still others thought of the killing of students at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

The rush to blame Muslims for the bombing was seen, in this interpretation, as clear evidence of the nation's propensity to violate its stated ideals of fair play, as well as an expression of darker national traditions. Two days after the bombing, for example, the popular writer Tom Clancy warned that "until the criminals are apprehended, we need to remember that prejudging anything is contrary to American tradition. Respect for religion is one of America's core principles, and if we depart from that, the terrorists win something important and we lose something even more important." News commentator Daniel Schorr thought that anti-Muslim hysteria illustrated "how easy it is to yield to xenophobia," and others suggested that after the collapse of Communism, Muslims had become the new "red menace." An editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times declared that Americans had lowered themselves "to the levels of terrorists, striking out blindly at whatever demon that was handy," and the Sacramento Bee wondered if "the very rhetoric that castigates immigrants and foreigners isn't encouraging the bombers we grow at home."

Besides xenophobia, scapegoating, and terrorism against the nation's immigrants, many located anti-Muslim hysteria within the enduring tradition of American racism. An angry editorial in the Springfield, Missouri, News Leader declared that "American racists can easily disappear into the background in places like the Ozarks, Kansas farm country or northern Michigan.... The fight against international terrorism is difficult and beyond the control of most of us. The fight against racism is much easier. It begins at home." And in the Village Voice, Richard Woodward lamented that one of the "unearned privileges of being a straight WASP male in this society is that, whatever atrocities I may commit or troubles I may suffer, I won't be forced by the dominant culture to represent my group."

That racism was at work was clear to the American Jewish Committee's Kenneth Stern, program specialist on anti-Semitism and extremism, who told a congressional committee investigating domestic terrorism that he was "haunted" by how different public reaction would have been had black militants been responsible for the bombing, and if there were "10,000 to 40,000 armed black men practicing rhetoric about war with the Government."' We would, he said, "be dealing with this differently."

Princeton historian Nell Irvin Painter also saw a double standard in the tepid public reaction to "white purveyors of hatred" compared with the much harsher reaction to the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan and former aide Khalid Abdul Muhammad. "A year ago," she observed, "condemning them was de rigeur for anyone claiming citizenship in the American republic." Why, she wondered, were there not demands in Congress for the censure of militia members who "publish libraries full of hate literature, who run paramilitary camps, terrorize the Forest Service and regurgitate bigotry on computer networks," as there had been for Farrakhan and Muhammad? "On the one hand," she said, "we have white hate groups with actual histories of terrorizing federal agents in the West. On the other, we have two black men whose language is mean but who lack literal firepower. Yet it is the white neo-Nazis who have been dealt with gingerly, while a wall of condemnation came down on Messrs. Farrakhan and Muhammad."

McVeigh and Nichols were also Americanized when their motives were linked to the tradition of the "inspired maverick," to their experience in the military, to class resentments, and more ominously to a resurgence of reactionary violence in post-Vietnam America. For example, Jonathan Friedland, the Washington correspondent for the Guardian, told a National Public Radio audience that McVeigh struck him as "wholly American," from his belief in government conspiracy to his infatuation with guns, and even to his "loner" persona. "Timothy McVeigh," he wrote, "saw himself in that kind of John Wayne tradition of the rugged individualist who knows best. And the rest of the country who are still taking their orders from Washington, they're too blind to see what this kind of inspired maverick can see. And that tradition ... [is] deeply rooted in American popular culture and shared by both left and right."

Both McVeigh and Nichols were deeply rooted in the traditional initiation into American masculinity—service in the armed forces. So, remarked Northwestern University's Carl Smith, McVeigh was a "crew-cut native son with good cheekbones and a firm jaw whom we ourselves had trusted and trained to defend our country." Writing in the Nation, Katha Pollitt offered this blunt assessment: "Timothy McVeigh is not some libertarian free spirit gone astray. He felt at home in the Army ... he won medals for his Gulf War service.... If we're seriously interested in understanding how a young man could blow up a building full of hundreds of people, why not start by acknowledging that the state he now claims to oppose gave him his first lessons in killing?"

The perpetrators were also understood as victims of the harsh impact of social and economic powerlessness. (And it was McVeigh, much more than Nichols, who seemed to command attention.) In the New Yorker, Joyce Carol Oates characterized him as a "marginal personality," emerging from upstate New York, where people understood that they were "distinctly marginal; wherever the fountainheads of significance, let alone power, they are surely not here." McVeigh, she believed, turned to "paramilitary groups" where "one is at the very center of power: the 'power,' at least, to destroy." And, in the Los Angeles Times, Michael Kazin portrayed McVeigh as a victim of the disruptions that seemingly disempowered blue-collar American men in recent decades.

More ominously, McVeigh and Nichols were viewed as reactionary terrorists spawned by the corrosive legacy of the Vietnam War and energized by resentments similar to those that gave birth to the German Freikorps after World War I. These Germans, angered by the harsh terms of the Armistice of 1918, blamed the Weimar Republic for stabbing Germany in the back. They formed their own paramilitary force and fought against their domestic enemies, tilling the soil for the rise of the Nazis. "In the mythology of the New War," James William Gibson argued, "the U.S. government and, more generally, the political power structure across the country are seen as liberal, weak, and corrupt; the system no longer has legitimate moral authority."

Consequently, McVeigh and Nichols did not appear as solitary killers but as harbingers of a new domestic threat, the post-Vietnam American Freikorps, the militias. The Oklahoma City bombing revealed a toxic American landscape, teeming with alienated and embittered antigovernment groups who understood themselves as remnant patriots guarding endangered American freedoms. The news that McVeigh and Nichols had attended meetings of the Michigan Militia sparked an intense fear that the bombing was the first salvo in a war against the government, a war that would be fought not on foreign battlefields but in the streets of the nation.

Images of men in military garb on "training" exercises in the backwoods of America, links between some militia groups and neo-Nazis, widespread proliferation of the virulently anti-Semitic ideology of Christian Identity, alarmist rhetoric about invading U.N. troops using black helicopters for intelligence gathering and preparing to murder "true patriots" in secret extermination centers after said patriots had been rendered helpless by gun control, culminating in a "one world government," meshed with the horrific images coming out of Oklahoma City.

The militias were viewed as home-grown and alien at the same time. The Omaha World Herald opined that the militias were "dark forces on the far edges of society.... A tiny minority, still a lunatic fringe group." In Vogue, Julia Reed spoke of her visit to a paramilitary group, the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, that had contemplated a missile attack on the Murrah Building in 1983 in retaliation for the killing of Posse Comitatus member Gordon Kahl. "In the best case scenario these guys vote for David Duke or buy 'the truth about Waco' videos at militia meetings: in the worst, you get guys holed up in the Ozarks with tanks plotting to overthrow the government and kill all the Jews, or guys who vent their rage on a federal building full of men, women, and children."


Excerpted from The Unfinished Bombing by Edward Tabor Linenthal Copyright ©2003 by Edward Tabor Linenthal. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments IX
Introduction: April 19, 1995 1
1. Falling into History 15
2. Telling the Story: Three Narratives 41
3. "A New World": The Inner Life of a Wounded Community 81
4. "A Single Chord of Horror": The Memorial Vocabulary of American Culture 109
5. "We Come Here to Remember": Creating the Memorial in Oklahoma City 175
Conclusion: Bonds of Affection 231
Postscript 239
Notes 242
Index 293
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