A sketch of Timothy McVeigh and his mugshot as they appear on the FBI’s website about the Oklahoma City bombing. (FBI)
When Timothy McVeigh made the bomb that would take down the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, he did it in plain sight, at a state park in Kansas. McVeigh and at least one co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, mixed 4,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate — a common fertilizer — with diesel fuel, and loaded the barrels in the back of a rented Ryder truck, while it was parked at Geary State Fishing Lake.
The location was convenient because McVeigh knew the area, having been stationed at nearby Fort Riley before being discharged in 1991. McVeigh, 26, was a decorated veteran of the first Gulf War, a combat infantryman who left the Army after washing out of Ranger school. He was also a racist and anti-government radical who sought revenge for the standoff at Ruby Ridge, in which a woman was killed by an FBI sniper, and Waco, where 82 Branch Davidians and four federal agents died, with most of the civilians perishing in a fiery conflagration following a 51-day siege.
Nichols was McVeigh’s old Army buddy and partner on the gun show circuit who had purchased a white frame house on South Second Street in Herington, less than 20 miles away from Geary Lake. McVeigh rented the Ryder truck from a body shop at Junction City.
The bomb exploded at 9:02 a.m. Wednesday, April 19.
The federal building was filled with hundreds of people. The blast killed 168, including six children. It remains the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history.
There is a direct line between the Oklahoma City bombing and the Jan. 6 insurrection. The beliefs that drove McVeigh and his co-conspirators, who saw themselves as patriots, are chillingly similar to those that propelled the Capitol insurrectionists, who see themselves as patriots.
But while Oklahoma City was a violent expression of anti-government sentiment by a handful of isolated extremists, the Jan. 6 attack was the coordinated action of hundreds of delusional partisans and violent extremists seeking to destroy the most vital instrument of our democracy — the physical ballots of the Electoral College.
The Oklahoma City bombing was near-universally condemned, but the movement that spawned it existed on the fringes of the American heartland, tolerated by a culture that showed deference to (Christian) religion and the military, mistrusted the government and prized guns as expressions of freedom. Far from the American mainstream, it recruited members through self-published books and newsletters, meetings in the back rooms of gun shows, broadcasts over shortwave radio, handwritten letters and calls from side-of-the-road pay phones.
Now, the movement has gone mainstream.
While the players have changed and the movement has been given the patina of power, if not authority, by a former president who endorses the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen, its poisonous rhetoric remains the same, only now with a vast digital reach.
Let me take you back 20 years, to when I was an investigative writer working on a series about hate groups in the heartland. It’s the first Saturday in December, at a huge gun show at the Tulsa Expo Center, where in a side room Bo Gritz is performing his trademark move: He’s tied a United Nations flag to the barrel of a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun and doused the flag in lighter fluid.
Gritz (pronounced “Grites”) has his bona fides. He’s a retired Green Beret colonel, the leader of the Christian Patriot movement, a former Populist Party presidential candidate (a distinction also held by KKK leader David Duke), and the man who helped negotiate an end to the Ruby Ridge standoff.
“I don’t see a single person sitting here that won’t get a chance in their lifetime to say ‘no’ to this New World Order — this Antichrist,” Gritz says.
Then he lights the flag. It burns with a fierce orange flame and malodorous black smoke drifts upwards. Gritz says those who fail to fight will become like the stinking residue, and he cites Revelation 14:11: “And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever.”
Now as then, religion gets mixed up in the philosophy of the extreme right, but it’s a kind of militant racist dogma that most Americans have never heard. Called Christian Identity, it holds three key beliefs, according to the pioneering work of Michael Barkun, professor emeritus of political science at Syracuse University: Whites are the true descendants of the biblical tribes of Israel, and not modern Jews; the world is on the verge of an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil in which whites must do battle with a worldwide Jewish conspiracy; and Jews and nonwhites are the biological children of Satan, “mud people” without human souls.
While the influence of Christian Identity waned in the years following the Oklahoma City bombing, it has reemerged in recent years as the extreme right has gained power.
A few of Christian Identity’s most notorious adherents are Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Olympic Park and abortion clinic bomber; members of The Order, a white supremacist group that killed Jewish talk show host Allen Berg in Denver in 1984; and the Aryan Republican Army, probably the most successful bank robbers in American history.
The Aryan Republican Army — also known as the Midwestern Bank Bandits — was a white nationalist gang that, from 1994 to 1996, used pipe bombs as decoys and wore rubber masks representing living U.S. presidents to rob at least 22 banks to finance a cataclysmic race war.
Although they were headquartered in Ohio, one of their safehouses was on a quiet residential street in Pittsburg, Kansas. The gang fell apart after their two leaders, Kevin Langan and Richard Guthrie, had a violent argument over Langan’s cross-dressing. After that some former members turned informant, there was a shootout with the FBI, and Langan and Guthrie were arrested.
At the Pittsburg safehouse, investigators discovered a recruiting video. It showed ski-masked members brandishing automatic weapons and displaying bricks of hundred-dollar bills. “Make no mistake,” intoned a masked man with an assault rifle, as I recall, “we are your neighbors.”
Don’t get me wrong. There is no need to fear your neighbors. Most of them are decent people who would pitch in to help if your house was on fire. But too many of us believe the conspiracy theories that spread like cancer on social media and from our politicians.
There is no reason to believe the government, then or now, has built concentration camps for white Christians, or that the United Nations is seeking to enslave you, or that the coronavirus vaccine was designed to mess with your DNA and turn you zombie. And, if you are among the 1 in 3 Americans who believe the Big Lie, let me suggest that not only are you wrong, but you are providing cover to the violent fringe that would overturn our democracy by force.
The choice Americans now face is not one of rival parties and competing ideas. The choice is between democracy and chaos. American democracy has, in our lifetimes, been among the most stable and credible systems of government in the world. That, of course, unraveled under the bizarro world of the former president. But here’s the thing (and I’ll invoke Carl Sagan): extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. There just is no credible evidence of large-scale fraud in the 2020 election.
But there is clear and convincing evidence that the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 was fueled by conspiracy theories and encouraged to insurrection by the former president and others. In this age of social media, never before has a crime been so well-documented. And the insurrection perfectly fits the FBI’s definition of domestic terrorism: “Violent, criminal acts committed by individual and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”
The tragedy of Jan. 6 is that so many Americans were seduced into risking imprisonment or even death — and jeopardizing our democracy — in service to a delusion. The seductive old lie says that someone else is always to blame for our problems: the Jews, the Blacks, the United Nations. The lie plays on our faith, our patriotism, our sense of identity. It operates in plain sight. It preys on our fears and counts on being treated with deference because to do otherwise would be to invite scorn, or at least suspicion, from our neighbors.
The lie is easy to sell, because lies are always easier to sell than the truth, whether you’re hawking cigarettes or conspiracy theories. Lies are sexy. The truth is as homely and boring as an old shoe. But if we are to survive our third century as a nation, we must define truth as fact and not as feeling, patriotism as duty and not as loyalty, faith as an expression of love and not of hate.
At least six Kansans were among the more than 500 charged by the Department of Justice for taking part in the Capitol breach. One such Kansan is too many. As Independence Day approaches, let’s chart a path that leads away from Oklahoma City and Jan. 6, far from the ghosts of Geary Lake.
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