It didn’t start out that way, but a new documentary tying various threads among far-right extremists and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh serves as a history lesson and, indirectly, as a warning that something so horrible could happen again.
Oklahoma City, directed by Barak Goodman, airs Tuesday night in PBS’ “American Experience” series (8 p.m.) after its premiere last month at the Sundance Film Festival. Producer Mark Samels developed it as a means to “excavate” the story behind the bombing, Goodman said.
“This was hatched a couple years ago,” Goodman said in an interview. “It was time to take a look at this worst case of domestic terrorism in American history … and find the roots of the story.”
The two-hour documentary unpacks separatist and white supremacy movements that dogged the country in the 1980s and early 1990s — detailing anti-government rhetoric that still echoes. McVeigh’s involvement grows from selling anti-government bumper stickers in Texas to packing a Ryder truck with racing fuel and fertilizer and blowing it up in Oklahoma.
His actions were symbolic, not inexplicable.
“I thought to myself, ‘Why Oklahoma City? It’s a quiet place. Nothing happens here. It’s not supposed to happen here,’ ” Oklahoma City police officer Jennifer Rodgers says early in the film.
McVeigh considered targets in Dallas, Little Rock, Ark., and Tulsa, Okla., before settling on Oklahoma City because federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents assigned there were involved in a siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. And he picked April 19 because it was the anniversary of the Waco siege’s fiery end.
The filmmakers concluded that McVeigh acted after hearing anti-government rhetoric for years.
“You cannot demonize a federal government and make these radical claims and put forth these radical conspiracy theories without there being some concrete real-world effects sometimes,” Goodman said.
Well before Oklahoma City, members of the Aryan Nations and their sympathizers blamed diminished white influence for their socio-economic troubles. The Order, another white supremacist group, mimicked a group of patriots in the book The Turner Diaries that plots to overthrow the federal government. The book details using a truck bomb to blow up FBI headquarters in Washington.
McVeigh had been exposed to all of that by the time he wrote a letter to his local paper in 1992 asking whether a civil war was imminent and showed up at Waco in 1993 selling bumper stickers reading “Fear the government that fears your gun” and “Ban guns: Make the street safe for a government takeover.”
The Waco raid was, to him, evidence of what the government would do to seize weapons. ATF agents feared Branch Davidian leader David Koresh would attempt to bring about Armageddon after receiving a tip about weapons at the compound. They attempted to intervene, triggering a 51-day standoff.
Jeff Jamar of the FBI, speaking in the documentary, said it seemed negotiations never really existed.
“We were just in a situation where all it could do was grow worse,” he said. According to the government, as agents lobbed tear gas into the compound, Koresh’s followers set fire to the building, killing dozens, including children.
“I was not surprised that mothers didn’t come out with their kids — David taught us that … we would ascend to heaven in a fiery transcendence,” former Branch Davidian Kat Schroeder told the filmmakers.
While McVeigh wasn’t part of a militia group, exposure to anti-government rhetoric prompted him to strike back, Goodman said. He was caught quickly, convicted and executed for the 168 deaths at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
“I’m persuaded that he acted alone, with his Army buddies, and that’s really the scariest thing of all,” he said. With little money, and little understanding of bombmaking, McVeigh pulled it off. Most Americans felt betrayed, but some saw him fulfilling what they themselves could not do, Goodman said.
“It’s not everybody who has the capacity or will or mental illness to actually do this, but I’m not naive or Pollyanna-ish enough to think that things have changed so much we won’t see this happen again,” Goodman said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates there about 500 anti-government groups in the country today.
“They never quite go away,” Goodman said. “I think the only thing that we can take some comfort in is that law enforcement is much more attuned to this than they used to be. They are listening and watching, but whether that can stop something like Oklahoma City — who knows?”