The Oklahoma City Bombing claimed the lives of 168 people and caused hundreds of injuries (“From Decorated Veteran to Mass Murderer” 1). But who did it, and more importantly why? The attack happened during a time when most Americans thought terrorism was an overseas problem and served as a wake-up call; no one expected that an act of terrorism would be carried out on US soil, let alone done by American citizens. The bombing left the country stunned and has caused various social and political changes in the US; Oklahoma City was not the only place impacted, the whole nation was.
It all started in the spring of 1988 where the two bombers-to-be met at Fort Benning in Georgia after they had enlisted in the US Army. They were Timothy McVeigh – aged 20, and Terry Nichols, aged 33. Nichols had joined the Army to get away from his life on his family farm, while McVeigh also had a similar rural upbringing in New York (Russakoff, Kovaleski 1) and was finding it hard to get a job without a college degree (Giordano 9). McVeigh was intelligent but an underachiever; he had gotten mediocre grades in high school but scored highly on standardized tests (Russakoff, Kovaleski 4).
Conversely, Nichols spent one year attending university before stopping. Despite Nichols being thirteen years the senior of McVeigh the two soldiers quickly became friends during basic training. They had mutual far-right political beliefs and similar interests including but not limited to firearms and survivalism (Rimer 1). Along with that they both opposed the actions of the government, specifically gun control. Not even a year after enlisting Terry Nichols requested and received a hardship discharge (Rimer 1), while McVeigh went on to serve in the Gulf War in Desert Storm.
He was considered to be a “top gun” and won a Bronze Star Metal for his efforts. He was discharged upon his own request in the December of 1991 (Hoffman 19). After leaving the military McVeigh moved back up to New York and got a job as a security guard at the Burns International Security Service. Over the next few years he would remain a drifter, moving around frequently. In early 1993 he moved to Arizona and lived with an old friend whom he had met in basic training, Michael Fortier. Afterwards he began to travel around the country peddling guns at gun shows.
However, not everything was copasetic. The ‘militaristic’ actions of the government, first at Ruby Ridge and then during the Waco siege strengthened his already preexisting hatred for the government and was leaving him more and more disillusioned. He made the choice to seek revenge for their actions. At first he considered assassinating government officials, listing possible targets as Judge Walter Smith, Janet Reno and Lon Horiuchi who were each involved with Ruby Ridge or Waco in one way or another (McVeigh 2).
Instead of individual assassinations he decided to bomb a government building, an idea he most likely took from one of his favorite novels “The Turner Diaries,” where a group of people bomb the headquarters of the FBI in order to spark a revolution. In 1994 he went to Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier to receive help in constructing the bomb. Nichols and Fortier agreed to assist him (US v. McVeigh 2). Fortier helped them fund it by some questionable means like theft, but McVeigh and Nichols did most of the heavy lifting.
They bought ammonium nitrate fertilizer, diesel fuel, racing fuel and various other materials (US v. McVeigh and Nichols 2) and stored them in a storage facility owned by Nichols. McVeigh chose the Alfred P. Murrah Building as the target because of the number of federal workers employed there and also because of its large number of windows (“McVeigh’s Own Words”). On April 17, 1995 under the alias Robert Kling McVeigh rented a 20-foot long Ryder rental truck from a shop in Kansas (James 1). The next day McVeigh went to Nichol’s storage facility where all of the bomb making supplies were stored.
Together they assembled the bomb, mixing all of the materials together (“OKC Bombing Timeline”). On the following day, April 19th, their truck bomb would be detonated it in front of the federal building assuming everything went as they planned. The 19th was chosen for a very specific reason; it was the 2nd anniversary of the Waco siege which was one of the events McVeigh and Nichols were attempting to avenge (Thomas). At 9:00 AM McVeigh arrived alone at the Murrah Federal Building. He parked the Ryder truck out front of it and he lit the two fuses in the back of the truck then went to his car and drove away.
In the front of the truck was an alternative fuse which he would have to have shot which would have caused his death. At 9:02 AM the bomb detonated, killing 168 and injuring hundreds more. Among the 168 casualties were 19 young children located in the building’s daycare center on the second floor (Pressley 2). McVeigh later referred to them as “collateral damage,” a statement that could be considered hypocritical by some due to his anger and frustration brought upon by the children killed during the Waco siege.
However, he also stated that it “might have given me pause to switch targets” (Thomas 1). Nevertheless the damage was already done. The explosion caused significant damage to the north face of the building but also damaged other areas along with some surrounding buildings (ASCE 28). Initially 4% of the floor area was destroyed; however that number quickly rose to 42% after part of the building underwent a progressive collapse due to its lack of support after just a few seconds (Lew 14). All together the bombing caused more than 650 million USD in damage (McVeigh 2) and the loss of many lives.
At 10:20 AM, not even 90 minutes from the bombing, McVeigh was been pulled over by state trooper Charlie Hangar on 135 for driving without a license plate. The trooper noticed a bulge in his jacket caused by his pistol and arrested him for both weapons and traffic related charges. McVeigh was being held in county jail while a large-scale manhunt was underway – little did they know they already had their suspect in custody. Through a sketch made from the descriptions of witnesses the bomber was identified as Timothy McVeigh.
On the 21st Terry Nichols turned himself into authorities in Kansas, and at about the same time McVeigh was being interviewed by federal officials for his possible involvement with the attack. Americans were outraged to see that the suspects were both Americans and it was very disconcerting to some. On June 3, 1997 McVeigh was found guilty of 11 counts of murder, conspiracy and the use of a weapon of mass destruction (Romano, Kenworthy 1). Nichols was also found guilty but the jury was torn on the decision of giving him the death penalty or life in prison, even after many long hours of debating.
The judge spared his life and made the decision of giving him life without the possibility of parole. The third man, Michael Fortier, was sentenced to 12 years for not notifying authorities of the plan. He served as a key witness for the prosecution and some of his information led to the convictions of the other two conspirators. Throughout his imprisonment McVeigh showed no remorse for his actions; claiming that “bombing the Murrah Federal building was morally and strategically equivalent to the U. S. hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq, or other nations” (McVeigh 1).
Meanwhile he was set to die in June of 2001 by means of lethal injection. On that day he kept silent and remained calm whilst strapped down to the chair. His execution was broadcast to survivors of the bombing and their families via closed-circuit television. He had no specific last words – instead he decided to use the 19th century poem “Invictus” as his final statement (“McVeigh’s Final Statement”). The poem by William Ernest Henley ended in the lines “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul. After the execution there were many mixed emotions felt; sadness, happiness and even anger. Some argued that he had taken the easy way out, dying calmly and peacefully with his “state-assisted suicide” while victims of the bombing had died horribly and left their families and friends behind without prior warning. Still, no one could take in the fact that two people that grew up in the heartland of America could commit such an atrocity. The fact that they had both served in the army was even more baffling; why would they attack their own nation?
The events had a psychological impact on residents of Oklahoma City – even those who did not personally know any of the victims. According to a study conducted by the NCBI they saw an increase in Posttraumatic stress disorder, smoking, alcohol use and stress. With the 20th anniversary of the bombing quickly approaching there is no doubt it has had an everlasting impact throughout the US with the bombing remaining the worst terrorist attack on American soil up until the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center.