The morning after President Trump stood in the rain to take his oath of office, Barak Goodman debuted his documentary Oklahoma City at the Sundance Film Festival. On the surface, one had little to do with the other – in 1995, when Timothy McVeigh set off a bomb in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building that killed 168 people, Trump was just a run-of-the-mill New York City real estate mogul. Yet 22 years later, his position is a lot more relevant.
In the documentary, which premieres at select theaters Friday and will air on PBS February 7th, Goodman dives deep into the events leading up to McVeigh’s brutal assault against the federal government. The film explores the formation of the Aryan Nations, the violent sieges of Ruby Ridge and Waco – government raids on fringe groups that fueled a backlash from far-right militias – and McVeigh’s interest in them, as well as his own complicated relationship with guns and the government. Goodman, a longtime PBS documentarian, says that he and his team intentionally “avoided making any connection” between the rise of white supremacy in the 1980s and 1990s and the version seen in our news today.
But given how the far right has become increasingly emboldened since Trump’s election, it seems eerily relevant. Goodman tells Rolling Stone that in spite of Trump’s ascendance over the 18 months it took to research, film and edit the documentary, “We didn’t want to make facile comparisons with what’s happening now. That said, we hope people will take away from this film a deeper understanding of this movement and of the historical roots of the white supremacist movement and the radical right in general.”
Here, four takeaways from Oklahoma City to keep in mind at Trump continues his presidency.
Attention needs to be paid to the mental health of soldiers and veterans.
The one constant throughout McVeigh’s life was guns. He loved them from an early age, spending his formative years in upstate New York learning to hunt with his grandfather and, after finding himself without direction, enlisting in the United States Army and deploying in Operation Desert Storm in 1990. Despite his enthusiasm for firearms, McVeigh quickly became disillusioned by the murder of Iraqi civilians. “They were human beings at the core,” he said after taking a sniper shot at an Iraqi and questioning why the government wanted him to shoot people. “They were no different than me. Then I had to reconcile with that the fact that, well, I killed them.” His inner conflict developed into the view that the federal government was nothing more than a bully.
McVeigh returned from war in 1992 with medals of service and a sense of abandonment by the government. “He comes back to Buffalo; he’s estranged from his family, has no friends, no girlfriend,” says Goodman. “When a person is isolated like that, you already have these nascent beliefs growing that the federal government is to blame.” He was alone, unable to find a job and without money; at one point, he even found himself in debt to the government due to overpayment.
The government isn’t a faceless monolith – it’s made up of regular people.
McVeigh knew that there would be casualties in his attack. “To get the message across, you need to hurt them,” he said, justifying his murder of civilians. “The only way they’re going to get the message is with a body count.” The Murrah building housed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the agency McVeigh credited for the massive failings of the Waco massacre two years earlier. He believed an attack on the building would signal to the government that they were the reason Americans were struggling and dying.
In his testimony, McVeigh noted that it was the U.S. government that started the war. “And that’s how I look at the Murrah bombing,” said McVeigh. “To me, it wasn’t a start of a war. It was a counterattack. The war had already been started. You guys think you can be ruthless? Let’s see how you like when the war is brought to you.” But what he perpetrated was an attack on regular “mothers and fathers and daughters and sons and grandparents who had a job to do,” as Ruth Schwab, who worked for HUD in the building, describes in the film. They were government employees who woke up and went to work each day – just like McVeigh had done in the military.
The American Dream can have a brutal dark side.
The most striking aspect of Oklahoma City is how all-American McVeigh was. Though he was not a formal member of any white supremacist or nationalist groups, McVeigh attended gun shows with extremists from these organizations. In 1993, he drove to Waco, Texas during the 51-day FBI siege of the Mount Carmel Center so that he could sell pro-gun rights bumper stickers from the hood of his car. Like so many other protestors of this standoff between David Koresh’s group of Branch Davidians and the FBI and ATF, McVeigh saw the federal government as needlessly antagonistic against Americans legally arming themselves and living freely on a private compound. During his trial, he said, “If you continue this shit like Ruby Ridge and Waco, this is what’s going to happen.”
In the film, Randy Norfleet, a U.S. Marine and witness to the crime, recounts seeing McVeigh parking the Ryder Truck filled with explosives in front of the Murrah building – and the sense of betrayal he felt when he later realized McVeigh was the man he saw earlier with a military-style crew cut. Goodman, who came into the project without a deep knowledge of McVeigh’s history, felt this was a crucial element to the events in Oklahoma City. “He had such a conventional American story,” the director says. “There’s nothing exceptional about his background. He came from a very deep and rich vein in the American story, and we wanted to expose that to show people that these ideas, these grievances, came from somewhere.”
Home-grown white nationalists are just as terrifying – and deadly – as radicalized Islamists.
After founding the Aryan Nations in the 1980s, Richard Butler acknowledged the likelihood of violence among his followers when he said that there would be “a lot of blood running one day.” While Butler merely discussed bloodshed, followers like Bob Matthews – leader of white supremacist group The Order – advocated for violent action. Self-described white nationalists stockpiled guns and ammunition in off-the-grid compounds across the U.S, arming themselves against a government they felt prioritized the rights of non-whites above “native born” Americans. It’s this ideology that led to the Branch Davidians in Waco and Randy Weaver, a white nationalist who was contracted to modify weapons illegally for the Aryan Nations in Idaho’s Ruby Ridge.
Even though the government knew that white power groups were littered across the country, as they describe in the film, immediate reports of the Oklahoma City bombing speculated the perpetuators were Muslim. Broadcast journalists Connie Chung and John McWethy noted that the attack had “Middle East terrorism written all over it” – But they were clearly wrong. Mark Potok, a journalist who covered the bombing, described initially seeing McVeigh: “I and the rest of the country saw Timothy McVeigh for the very first time and we understood in a kind of flash that there were enemies within this country. Not foreign terrorists, but red-blooded Americans who were engaged in a war against America.”