Pendleton native Timothy J. McVeigh set domestic terrorism on a new course 25 years ago when his truck bomb slaughtered 168 innocent people and injured 800 more in the Oklahoma City bombing.
McVeigh said the 7,000-pound truck bomb he ignited in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, was an attack against the U.S. government. In reality, government workers and ordinary citizens who had nothing to do with his grievances were murdered, including 19 children.
It was, and remains, the worst act of domestic terrorism by a U.S. citizen. And it had a lasting impact on America’s fringe right. In the 25 years since, extremists, fanatics and the mentally disturbed have stepped from the shadows, frequently occupying the headlines with their terrorist acts.
Before the Oklahoma City bombing, terrorists in this country generally targeted specific people or groups they considered enemies. Since then, domestic terrorists and deranged individuals have repeatedly cut a wide swath of carnage. They will kill anyone to make a point, whether it is at a place of worship or a shopping mall.
“Mass murder has come to be an explicit aim of these people and in very many ways we have Timothy McVeigh to thank for that,” said Mark Potok, a retired senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Now, if you think about what has happened since Oklahoma City, it is: How many people can we kill?”
McVeigh’s actions also altered the course of the militia movement that spawned his own ideology, taking the steam out of mainstream militia groups as they sought to distance themselves from McVeigh and denounce his act of terrorism.
But, in a troubling sign for those who study terrorism and hate crimes, there remains today a small number of extremists and racists who hail McVeigh. They include a white nationalist from Lockport who calls McVeigh a "hero" and a neo-Nazi blogger who once suggested that a monument be made to him.
McVeigh failed to ignite the revolution he hoped his bombing would spur. But in the last 25 years, times have drastically changed.
Different than prior terrorists
McVeigh's victims included mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, even children as young as 6 months old. He killed a wide variety of federal employees, including those who helped get people jobs, Social Security benefits and subsidized apartments, and who helped farmers.
Some survivors continue to suffer from serious health problems related to the bombing.
Before McVeigh was executed in 2001, he had told two reporters from The Buffalo News his bombing had multiple purposes.
Exclusive audio recording of interview with Timothy McVeigh. (Audio courtesy of Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck)
It was in response to federal agents killing innocent people at the Branch Davidian religious sect compound in Waco, Texas, and at Randy Weaver’s remote cabin in Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
McVeigh said he also hoped the bombing would inspire “brothers in arms” to follow his example and carry out attacks on the government.
He had envisioned a diverse assembly of extremist groups, from white supremacists to Black Panthers, waging a battle against the American government. Once the government was overthrown, the groups with their conflicting ideologies could settle their differences, according to McVeigh’s vision.
The revolution never happened, but domestic terrorism changed dramatically.
Before the 1995 bombing, Potok said, there were certain unspoken rules among terrorist groups on the right and left. He cited the Ku Klux Klan and Weathermen.
The KKK targeted blacks, civil rights protesters, Jews and others. The Weathermen exploded bombs at government buildings, banks and other institutions, but often warned people ahead of time.
“As a general matter, you could understand the targets of extremists throughout American history,” said Potok, who is now associated with the international Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.
McVeigh was different in that his goal was achieving a massive body count – something that had not been done before – to draw attention to his cause and hatred of the government, Potok explained.
"There were lots of innocent people attacked by the Klan, but with McVeigh, it was a mass murder for the purpose of accumulating a huge body count that would grab the attention of the American people," Potok said.
Yet, this new breed of terrorists and mass murderers differs from McVeigh in that they select “soft targets,” such as places of worship or outdoor sites where people gather, according to Mark Pitcavage, a historian and senior research fellow for the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League.
While McVeigh’s bombing set domestic terrorism on a new, more violent, path, it also helped weaken the very militia movement that had helped shape McVeigh’s views.
Militia movement spawned McVeigh
The militia movement started to take root back in the early 1990s out of fear the government was encroaching on individual freedoms, including gun rights, and moving to a "New World Order." When federal law enforcement officers engaged in a bloody gun battle in 1992 at Ruby Ridge, those beliefs were only strengthened. Members of the Randy Weaver family were killed and so was a U.S. marshal.
McVeigh, then in his 20s, took notice.
A year later, federal agents were again in a deadly shootout with members of the religious cult known as the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Both sides suffered casualties. On April 19, 1993, the 51-day siege culminated when armored vehicles punched holes in the walls of the compound and deposited tear gas. A fire erupted and nearly 80 people inside perished.
McVeigh, who had visited Waco during the siege, said that after he watched the fire on live television he decided to retaliate against the government.
His bombing occurred, by design, on the second anniversary of Waco.
Exclusive audio recording of interview with Timothy McVeigh. (Audio courtesy of Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck)
Several members of militias in rural Michigan, where McVeigh periodically lived with his bombing co-conspirator Terry Nichols, condemned McVeigh’s terrorist act.
They say they believe in the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms and stand firm in opposing laws that would disarm citizens, but violence is not something they support.
“I was in the movement back then, but our circles never crossed. McVeigh spewed a lot of rhetoric that nobody wanted any part of,” said David Brian Stone, the head of a militia group known as Hutaree, which he said means “Christian warriors.”
He and another family member spent two years in federal prison for illegal possession of weapons, following an FBI investigation into the militia.
An FBI agent, Stone claimed, attempted to set up him up to build a bomb and blow up a federal building in Chicago.
“But we never bit on that. We wanted nothing to do with that,” said Stone, who serves as the supervisor of Michigan’s Wheatland Township.
And while he distances himself from the 1995 bombing, he says McVeigh was onto something when it came to support of the Second Amendment.
“Here we are now. It is 2020 and we see all this legislation on gun confiscation, so maybe McVeigh really did see something coming,” Stone said.
Myra T. Bray, the state commander of the Michigan Militia’s Wolverine Corps, also condemned McVeigh’s violence.
“Nobody agrees with what he did. We kind of wish he was never associated with the name militia. What he did, I can guarantee you, is something nobody believes in,” Bray said.
JoEllen McNergney Vinyard, a retired Eastern Michigan University professor of that state’s history, said that in her research for a book on the militias, she never encountered violent rhetoric or hero-worship for McVeigh.
Events at Ruby Ridge and Waco, plus farmers losing their land in foreclosures, she said, was what provided the impetus to elevate the militia movement to the national level.
But McVeigh’s attack on Oklahoma City, she said, caused it to lose steam.
“The mainstream militias tried to distance themselves and helped the government,” said McNergney Vinyard, author of the 2012 book, “Right in Michigan’s Grassroots: From the KKK to the Michigan Militia.”
McVeigh links to hate groups
In a series of interviews for the book, “American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing,” McVeigh denied he was a racist.
But his words and actions belied that claim.
He stated he found amusement in racial jokes about African Americans and denigrating terms to describe them. He had also been a member of the Ku Klux Klan for a short time.
While living in Kingman, Ariz., with Michael Fortier, the other bombing co-conspirator, McVeigh said he stole a book on the history of white supremacy from a public library.
McVeigh’s intention, he said, was to educate Fortier on the white supremacy movement.
Horace Scott Lacy, who has distributed White Lives Matter literature in Niagara County and is affiliated with the Aryan Renaissance Society, said McVeigh was a man of action.
“Timothy in my opinion wasn’t a racist or a white nationalist. Technically he shared the same views, but he wasn’t a die-hard a racist. He was anti-government,” said Lacy, a Texas resident.
But in some circles of the white supremacy movement, Lacy says McVeigh is held in high regard.
“There is no doubt about that. He acted instead of sitting behind a keyboard,” Lacy said. "Basically I respect the man for taking action, but in that situation I feel it was misguided."
Karl Hand, a Lockport resident and founder of the white supremacist Racial Nationalist Party of America, said he has distributed a flier with the words, “Hail McVeigh, Avenging Angel” above a photo of McVeigh.
Beneath the photograph are references to remembering Ruby Ridge and Waco. The flier also states, “They Started This War, And He Tried To End It.”
"I think he was a hero who put his own life on the line for something he believed in, that the government had gone too far," Hand said of McVeigh.
Hand said the government is to blame for the bombing in Oklahoma City. “Without Ruby Ridge and Waco, you would not have had Oklahoma City,” he said.
Fuel for terror
In recent years, there has been an uptick of support for McVeigh among far-right extremists, including individuals who either committed violent acts or planned them.
A pending case in Oklahoma City involved copycat plans to blow up a bank using a truck bomb similar to McVeigh’s.
Jerry Drake Varnell, who was sentenced Monday to 25 years in prison for attempting to use an explosive device and attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, told FBI agents he supported McVeigh’s actions.
"What happened in Oklahoma City was not an attack on America, it was retaliation," Varnell had stated in a Facebook message, according to court papers. "Retaliation against the freedoms that have been taken away from the American people."
A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that a month before Jeremy Christian’s 2017 slaying of two men on a train in Oregon, he took to social media and wrote, “May all the Gods Bless Timothy McVeigh – a TRUE PATRIOT!!!”
That same year, the study reported, a Florida man charged with possession of bomb-making material had a framed photograph of McVeigh in his bedroom.
Clark McCauley, research professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, said any sympathy there is for McVeigh can be traced to economic struggles and changing cultural values.
“The answer to the forces that propel what created McVeigh and people who sympathize with him are complex but boil down to the wringing out of the American middle class,” McCauley said.
The government’s push to be more inclusive, whether it be on issues of sexual preference or gender identity, he said have left many behind.
“The world has just turned around on people. It is fear at the bottom. The loss of the world they knew,” McCauley said of factors that can turn people against the government.
Potok, who worked for two decades at the Southern Poverty Law Center, agrees that changing social values and economic globalization have weighed heavy on American society.
“Now with only a high school diploma, God help you,” Potok said. “It’s not enough to be white anymore in the western world.”
But McCauley and Potok say that even in this whirlwind of change, the actual number of people who view McVeigh as a hero are few.
Still, Potok says there is reason to be concerned.
He cited neo-Nazi Daily Stormer blogger Andrew "Weev" Auernheimer’s post from a few years ago that called for raising money to build a monument to McVeigh: “Think of it, a gigantic bronze statue of Timothy McVeigh poised triumphantly atop a Ryder truck. I am not joking. This should be done. Imagine how angry it would make people.”