Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn
Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn
Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn

April 6, 2001

Real Violence and Tim McVeigh

US Attorney General John Ashcroft recently added his official voice to the chorus admonishing Hollywood to mend its violent ways. Ashcroft is from Missouri, whose death house in Potosi Correctional Center recently hosted the death rattle of mentally frail Stanley Lingar, his homosexual preference emphasized by the prosecutor to the jury and his execution okayed by a governor who took care to tell reporters the morning after that he'd lost no sleep over his decision.

Of course, Ashcroft also favors the death penalty, sharing with most US politicians the refusal to see any contradiction between deploring fictional violence in the movies and on television while simultaneously endorsing ritual vengeance in the form of executions by the state. Next month Ashcroft's department is scheduled to kill Timothy McVeigh who, come April 19, blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City with 4,800 lbs of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil exactly six years ago, killing 168, including 19 children.

There's no evidence that blood spattered on celluloid and videotape raises the level of actual violence in our society. There is on the other hand plenty of evidence that state violence, most notably in the form of war, is real violence's prime sponsor.

Japan's movies, TV serials and comic books are spattered with blood, violent porn, rape and sadism. Yet Japan's criminal statistics offer no evidence of any carry-over into real life. Japan hasn't fought a war for over half a century.

A friend of mine, Doug Lummis, who has lived in Japan for about half that time made the point to me a few years, saying "The cause of real violence in society is not fantasies of violence but other real violence. How many of the people convicted of crimes using weapons first learned how to use these weapons in the military? Any relation between violence in the black community and the huge number of black men who go through the military training mill? O.K., not true of the kids, but still, the indirect effects can be there. . . Violence Central: the US military."

Warring nations are more likely to experience surges in murder. The US homicide rate shot up 42 per cent after the Vietnam war and by the mid-1970s the US Supreme Court okayed the death penalty's return. "By a process of legitimation," the academics Dane Archer and Rosemary Gartner wrote in a 1978 compendium on violence, "wartime homicide becomes a high-status, rewarded model for subsequent homicides by individuals. Wars provide concrete evidence that homicide, under some condition, is acceptable in the eyes of a nation's leaders."

Is there any more vivid testament to the justice of these observations than McVeigh?

For a brief moment, after the Ryder truck exploded at 9.02 am that April morning six years ago, everyone was free to speculate who did it and why. The Who and The Why were deemed to be inextricably bound together. Rumors spread rampantly and soon coalesced into Swarthy Men, foreign Arab terrorists. Even as the injured and the dying moaned beneath the debris of the Murrah building, self-proclaimed terror "experts" like Steven Emerson were on television proclaiming the bomb to be the work of fanatic Islam.

"This was done," Emerson announced on CBS Evening News, "with the intent to inflict as many casualties as possible. That is a Mideastern trait." Then Emerson hastened to CNN's Crossfire studio, there proclaiming that "The FBI considers radical Islamic extremists on American soil to be the number-one domestic national security threat, period." CNN News disclosed that the FBI was hot on the trail of "men of Middle Eastern extraction".

Across the country came harassment of swarthy men fitting the Swarthy Arab profile. Palestinians quaked in their Nikes. "Oh please, let it be an Iraqi", they sighed. Iraqi-Americans prayed, "Oh, let it be an Iranian." Iranian-Americans thought, "Let it be a Colombian drug czar." Mexican-Americans thought, "Any Latin, whether Colombian or Cuban, will be blamed on us." President Clinton, whose political comeback flowered from the bombing, called for the death penalty for the killers.

And then it turned out to be Timothy McVeigh, white American, born in upstate New York, trained in his destructive skills by the US Army, a decorated veteran of the war on Iraq.

No sooner had McVeigh's impassive visage filled TV screens, his military career excavated and his fury at the US governments rampages at Waco brought to light, than an official closing of the nation's eyes began. The "New Security Measures" were not decommissioned at international airports. The Swarthy Arab profile remained in place on the target ranges of law enforcement. Because they practiced their skills on US Army bases in the US like Fort Riley, the trainers of Sergeant McVeigh had no reason to quake in their boots, unlike the militias apprehensive that perhaps the FBI would mistakenly or maliciously identify them as McVeigh's patrons, send in the SWAT teams and blow them to smithereens.

Text-only printable version of this article

Alexander Cockburn, one of America's best-known radical journalists, was born in Scotland and grew up in Ireland. An Oxford graduate, he was an editor at the Times Literary Supplement, and the New Statesman, before becoming a permanent resident of the United States in 1973. Cockburn wrote on the press and politics for the Village Voice, and, all through the 1980s, he was a regular columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He co-edits, with Jeffrey St. Clair, the lively Counterpunch newsletter, and is the author of several books, including Corruptions of Empire and, most recently, Al Gore: A User's Manual. His column appears fortnightly on Antiwar.com.

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Precisely because he's an object lesson in the consequences of war and of state sponsored violence, the disappearing of McVeigh swiftly got under way and nowhere is the process more conspicuous than in the place he should be most vividly remembered.

Drive through Oklahoma City, as I did in late March, and one is encouraged to make a detour into downtown, to whose renewal as a tourist destination McVeigh has made a signal 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. The Sunday I parked my truck next to St. Joseph's church a block away from the space previously occupied by the Murrah building there were maybe a couple of hundred visitors in any otherwise entirely empty downtown. The federal presence is still conspicuous in the form of the US Courthouse the other side of Fourth St.

By any demanding comparative standard the Oklahoma memorial does not hold up well as a political retort to, or commentary upon McVeigh's act of murderous demolition. Since the members of the design committee were clearly disinclined to reflect upon Why it happened, they settled most determinedly upon the When. At the east end of the rectangular reflecting pool there's an bleak modernist portal with 9.01 AM carved on it, this time check facing, the other end of the pool, a similar portal featuring 9.03 AM. Along the south side of the pool there's a lawn with 168 odd-looking chairs with high bronze backs and plastic seats that light up at night, each with the name of one of those killed by the bomb. There's a wall to the next to the east gate featuring the names of all the "survivors" of the explosion in the Murrah building and adjacent streets and structures. North of the pool there's a "survivor tree", an elm felled neither by the blast nor, perhaps even more strikingly, by Dutch elm disease.

Further north, the other side of the elm, is the old Journal Record building, now a memorial center raised by public subscription, containing public displays, archives and an Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. A shop offers mugs, notebooks, a K-9 poster featuring heroic rescue dogs and other memorabilia.

The display rooms, filled with the noise of radio and TV commentaries from the hours immediately following the explosion, resolutely decline any confrontation with history beyond that of the "where-was-I-when-it-happened" variety. Words like "senseless evil" are deployed to do their customary feeble battle with reality and the past. The superior conduct of those who work within the civil process is emphasized more than once, mostly by praising those Oklahomans who espoused peaceful means to lobby President and Congress in the wake of the explosion to rush through the Counter-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, giving government enhanced powers to snoop and detain without warrant, and to deny habeas protections to people on Death Row. The overall emotional tone is one of intense self satisfaction at the solidarity of Oklahomans in time of trouble.

And the perpetrator? I may have missed something, but McVeigh's role is advertised by just one photograph, the familiar one of the US Army vet being marched along in orange jumpsuit and handcuffs by FBI men. You wouldn't know anything about the man who parked the Ryder truck in front of the Murrah building, beyond the fact that he was white. 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 Eighties that laid waste the old industrial northeast. He did briefly work as a security guard in a warehouse in the awful racist, upstate town of Cheektowaga. Decorated veteran of the Iraqi war? There's no mention, so far as I recall, of McVeigh's military career. The vexed matter of whether McVeigh failed physical or psychiatric tests in his effort to join the Green Berets is similarly undiscussed. I suspect the US Army put up the failure of a psychiatric test as a piece of ex post facto justification to show it screens out dangerous terrorists.

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. Nor, amid the various quotations that adorn the walls of the Memorial and the pages of the Official Record, do we find McVeigh's favored quote from Justice Louis Brandeis: "Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law."

There is a large map of the United States in the exhibit rooms. You can press a button and be informed of the number of "terrorist" outrages across a decade, state by state. California offered me 15, starting with a bombing by the E.L.F. in Davis.

Maybe there's more about McVeigh in the filing cabinets of the Memorial Center Archives, or in the Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, overseen by a retired state- terrorist, General Dennis Reimer, former chief of staff of the US Army. According to the 150-page booklet that is the "official record" of the bombing, the Institute has two central goals, "to act as clearing house for information that can help prevent terrorist acts and to speed rescue efforts when such attacks do occur".

Maybe Reimer's staff are preparing new computer maps that will assist in the prevention of terrorist acts. Perhaps the Center will furnish a state by state guide as to where the largest clusters of retired Special Forces veterans and former Green Berets now reside, many of them time bombs waiting to explode or already in the process of detonation. Another display could confront the recent survey establishing that half America's children acknowledge being in homes with loaded weapons easily available and then discuss who exactly these gun owners are: the "gun nuts" feared b y liberals or the millions upon millions of state sanctioned gun-toters: cops, federal agents, retired military, and so forth.

Perhaps political scientists retained by Reimer will scrutinize the definition of terrorism espoused by the Memorial Center and taken from the US Code, specifically excluding acts of government from the "terrorist" designation.

I had the impression, unverified by any methodical questioning, that the visitors to the Memorial were unsatisfied by the displays. They were not absorbed but somewhat aimless and on the edge of boredom. 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.

Would not the tourists, some of them retired from the military, have relished a town meeting on terrorism, where they could consider such remarks of McVeigh's as (in a 1998 essay): "Hypocrisy when it comes to the death of children? In Oklahoma City, it was family convenience that explained the presence of a daycare 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 daycare 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 that they cannot be held responsible if children die.)"

But the Memorial's organizers have declined all such avenues of opportunity. Better to think of 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, when the HUD secretary on the Fifth Floor might have taken the day off, might have stepped back a couple of yards just before the floor fell away. It's American, surely, 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's 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. That's a lousy, evil way to look at the efficacy of political terror, but after all, look at the outfit that trained him.

Copyright 2001 Alexander Cockburn

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