PASADENA, Calif.— Buffalo News reporters Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck helped many Western New Yorkers understand what drove Pendleton native Timothy McVeigh to commit the deadliest domestic terrorism act in American history.
With the help of the two reporters, the rest of the nation will rediscover what led McVeigh to bomb a federal building on April 19, 1995, that led to the deaths of 168 people in a two-hour American Experience documentary, “Oklahoma City,” that will air on PBS at 9 p.m. Feb.7.
In an interview Monday during and after a news conference here, writer-director Barak Goodman said Herbeck and Michel, the co-authors of the 2001 book, “American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing,” were very important to the documentary.
“They were crucial,” said Goodman of Michel and Herbeck. “Nobody knows the McVeigh part of the story better than these two guys. And they were gracious and fantastic to work with. I owe a huge debt to both of them.”
Goodman added that there was a typical rights agreement with Michel and Herbeck that allowed the production to carry audiotapes of McVeigh speaking from death row about his anti-government philosophy that led to the bombing.
The film also includes poignant interviews with relatives of victims and survivors.
McVeigh is heard in his own words via the audiotapes. In interviews, Michel and Herbeck also detail how McVeigh’s fear that Americans would lose their right to carry guns played into his thinking that something had to be done against the government.
“They were helpful in terms of his biography, the crucial events in his life,” added Goodman. “They know that so well, it is as if they wrote the book yesterday. Very few people had actually sat down across from him, looked him in the eye for hours and really, really talked to him, particularly Lou Michel. Both of them had that experience so getting that first hand from them was absolutely crucial.”
Goodman said he had more than 60 hours of tape recordings from Michel and Herbeck.
“Mostly they’re useful as a sort of psychological window on this guy,” said Goodman. “I was sort of shocked. ... There’s a lot of revisionist history that goes on. But his lack of remorse. His complete conviction of the rightness of his own cause, his own actions is so evident in the tapes. And we don’t use them a lot in the film. We use them sparingly.
“But I think when we use them, they’re very, very revelatory of who this guy is and was and specifically the fact that that he was part of a larger movement, that he was part of a psychology and a set of beliefs and a set of values that much predated him and was sort of the milieu in which he formed his own particular evil designs.”
The “Oklahoma City” documentary airs a week before another American Experience documentary, “Ruby Ridge,” about a deadly standoff between an Idaho family and the federal government in 1992. "Oklahoma City" illustrates how Ruby Ridge, another standoff against law enforcement in Waco, Texas, in 1993 and the militia movement in the 1980s and early 1990s inspired McVeigh’s unspeakable and unimaginable terrorist act three years later.
“Taken together, 'Oklahoma City' and 'Ruby Ridge' examine how disparate elements, from white supremacists to religious separatists, were galvanized into a violent anti-government movement,” said Mark Samels, the executive producer of the series.
Some critics here wondered why “Ruby Ridge” won’t air first since it was one of McVeigh’s inspirations. Goodman said that wouldn’t have worked as well.
“'Ruby Ridge' is not about this movement and how this movement led to Oklahoma City,” explained Goodman. “It’s really a character drama about this family and their relationship with the FBI so it doesn’t get to some of the bigger issues. Therefore, I don’t think it would have really worked going in that direction. It doesn’t really lead to the Oklahoma City story… Where a little bit of Ruby Ridge in the Oklahoma City story makes you want to know more about it.”
“Going back to John Wilkes Booth, we’ve always tried to -- certainly in Kennedy’s assassination, too -- we’ve always tried to, in a way, kind of reduce a story to something that’s understandable and simple,” added Samels.
“And in the case of McVeigh, it’s this aberrant former Army veteran of the Iraq War, maybe suffering from some sort of shock from being in the war… Things didn’t go well. Didn’t get into Ranger school. It’s in his biography. If you say why? Why did this happen? It’s in his biography. I think what these films really show is that there’s a context to these individuals who rise up and puncture society, just like there was a context for Booth.”