Every ten years or so, America has a benchmark event that resonates throughout the culture, one that everyone above a certain age experiences. As the technical capacity to disseminate information on these events has improved, such events become more of a unifying experience. On 7 December 1941, the Japanese Imperial Army bombed the US fleet at Pearl Harbor. The next day, the President used the radio to report the attack to the entire nation. His phrase “a date that will live in infamy” may be the most famous line uttered on the radio. Almost 22 years later, on 22 November 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. With the establishment of television networks, nearly the entire nation had learned of the event by midnight that day, making it one of the most impactful moments captured on television. At least until 11 September 2001, when millions watched live broadcasts of the second plane hitting the Twin Towers in New York City. These and many other events define generations; anyone older than 25 years most likely remembers exactly where and how they heard about the September 11th attacks.
This dynamic has a flip side. In June, a few high school graduates will have been born after September 11th and have no experiential memory of the event. History lived differs from history learned. This dynamic necessitates that history be documented. In a few generations, the public memory fades. One day — maybe in five to ten years — there will be a need to comprehensively document 9/11. It’s as if documentaries mark one of the points when events stop being known and start becoming history.
One such event is the Oklahoma City bombing. On 19 April 1995, Timothy McVeigh parked a Ryder van he’d converted into a bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The blast killed 168 people and injured an additional 675. To examine this, Barak Goodman wrote and directed, Oklahoma City, a documentary that premiered at Sundance in January and is now being shown on PBS’s documentary series American Experience.
The film chillingly opens with a recording from a Water Resources Board meeting, filled with the kind of pedestrian minutia that makes up most meetings anywhere. This gets interrupted with a rumble and static.
Beyond this opening, the film itself is a bit slow-paced. Goodman tells the stories in flashbacks that aren’t quite linear. Part of this develops out of the film defining the event of two parallel stories: the rise of right-wing politics and Timothy McVeigh’s biography.
Goodman looks at the rise of the far fight in America. He credits William Luther Pierce’s The Turner Diaries, a novel published in 1978, as igniting the movement. Pierce founded the National Alliance, one of several fringe political groups of that era. The novel itself details a fantasy in which a small group of whites who consider themselves oppressed take up arms against the government in defense of the white race.
The book went on to inspire many militant groups, including The Order, a neo-Nazi group lead by Robert Jay Mathews. Mathews then began a campaign to finance the revolution through robberies. He died 8 December 1984, of gunshot wounds and smoke inhalation. He was the first of a series of the movement’s constructed martyrs.
Goodman’s inclusion of Mathews’s history serves an important function. The film casts Mathews’s death as the first domino in a series of events that lead to the Oklahoma City bombing. The film presents a balanced look at the next two dominos: the FBI siege of Randy Weaver’s compound in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, from 21-31 August 1992, which resulted in the deaths of Weaver’s wife, Vicki and son Sam, as well as US Marshal Bill Degan, and the events at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. The stand-off began with an assault by FBI and ATF agents on the compound, which left four FBI agents and five Davidians dead. This began a long siege, which terminated with the FBI moving in to inject tear gas into the compound. The Davidians responded by setting fire to the compound, which killed 76 people.
Goodman navigates this subject matter with mixed results. He doesn’t completely exonerate the federal government. While the government made tactical mistakes, it’s important to note that the ultimate responsibility for the results lie with the Weavers and Koresch. Goodman does a bit of disservice by defining the Waco and Ruby Ridge revisionists as fringe elements; at the time, there was a lot of mainstream right-wing media promoting conspiracies about both sieges, including Rush Limbaugh, who often promoted the idea of Koresch as the victim.
The second story Oklahoma City tells is McVeigh’s biography. Drawing a clear intersection of the two events, the documentary introduces McVeigh through archival news video of him being interviewed at Waco, where McVeigh had driven to sell anti-government bumper stickers. The almost admiring portrayal of McVeigh by biographers Dan Herbeck and Lou Michel discusses how McVeigh bonded with his grandfather over guns, and how precious they were to him. In what seems like an apology for McVeigh, Michel explains that throughout his life, McVeigh hated bullies, which he ascribes to McVeigh getting nicknamed “Noodles” (for being thin) in high school. The documentary returns to this point on several occasions; this repeated return to McVeigh as an anti-bully severely hinders the documentary. Many people abhor bullying. Many people are mad at the federal government. McVeigh committed an act of terrorism. Tying his motivations to a noble impulse comes off a little like an apology for his actions.
Having merged the two stories, Goodman goes into detailing the events of April 19, 1995, McVeigh’s arrest, capture, conviction, and execution. In this narrative, a very different image of McVeigh emerges: he becomes a bit of a narcissist. Playing an interview where he describes putting together the device, it’s clear McVeigh is proud of his work. Indeed, it creepily sounds as if he’s expecting the interviewer to reply: “Redundant fuses, wow, you were on top of your game”. Near the end, Goodman uses a McVeigh quote that suggests how warped his mind was.
Death penalty, is would you call it oxymoron.
Death is not a penalty, it’s an escape.
They treat me like a trophy, like they got me, their gonna kill me, and we won.
They didn’t win.
In the crudest terms, 168 to 1.
One of the central points of the documentary was to detail the interconnectedness of the far right with McVeigh by humanizing McVeigh. The documentary falls short of this in one crucial and important way: Goodman tries to put a positive spin on the bombing. There’s exposition on how McVeigh offered a perceptual change in how people view the government, with Goodman contending that the Oklahoma City bombing put a human face on the federal government. If there was a change, however, it was transitory.
Near the end of the documentary, Jerry Flowers, a detective with the Oklahoma City Police department, states, “it closes the door on that chapter”. While McVeigh’s execution closed the practical narrative of what happened on April 19, 1995, there are still hundreds of anti-government groups operating in the United States.
Goodman does spends most of his documentary arguing that McVeigh wasn’t an island to himself; his actions were informed by the far-right movement in America. Ironically, in doing so, he creates a sense that the Oklahoma City bombing took place in a time and place equally removed from contemporary politics. It hasn’t.
Unfortunately, terrorists still commit acts based on the reasoning McVeigh used. On 8 June 2014, Jerad and Amanda Miller killed three people before committing suicide. Like McVeigh, they wanted to ignite a violent revolution. Equally problematic, Goodman treats right-wing terrorists as separated from mainstream politics. They aren’t. While there’s a long distance covered, there’s also a direct line between Scalia dismissing 13 words from the Second Amendment in his Heller decision, to the Millers’ belief they were being oppressed by the federal government. Additionally, with the accession of Steve Bannon as Trump’s chief adviser, there are new fears that extremist groups will be normalized and further incorporated into the body politic.