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The 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing was the largest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. A new documentary on the PBS series American Experience takes a fresh look at the events and motivations that led to the attack by Timothy McVeigh, and finds resonance for today. Jeffrey Brown interviews director Barak Goodman.
Finally tonight: 1995 was the year of the largest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, the Oklahoma City bombing.
A new documentary premieres tonight on the PBS series "American Experience" and takes a fresh look at that traumatic event and what led to it.
Jeffrey Brown has the story.
There's heavy damage done.
April 19, 1995.
About a third of the building has been blown away.
A Ryder rental truck with 5,000 pounds of explosives ripped through the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City; 168 people were killed, 19 children among them.
Who has come in here and done this terrible thing?
BARAK GOODMAN, Director, "Oklahoma City: I knew very little of the story. I mean, I remember — like a lot of people remember that day, and the image of that building, you know, with its face blown off, an image that we weren't used to or accustomed to at the time.
Barak Goodman is the director of the film "Oklahoma City."
While I think a lot of people remember this as a simple story of a lone terrorist committing an act, it actually has very deep roots. And when we pulled on those roots, a whole 'nother story sort of appeared.
The film delves into the rise of white nationalist militias in the 1980s, and two later events that galvanized the country and deeply influenced Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh: the siege of Ruby Ridge in 1992, when the FBI and U.S. Marshals confronted Randy Weaver at his home in rural Idaho, resulting in the deaths of Weaver's wife, son and a U.S. Marshal.
And the following year, Waco, Texas, when federal agents, responding to reports of weapons stockpiling, attempted to arrest the leader of a religious sect known as the Branch Davidians. A firefight broke out, killing 10, including four ATF agents. And after a 51-day standoff, the complex went up in flames as agents moved in with tear gas. More than 70 people died.
During the long standoff, then 24-year-old Army veteran Timothy McVeigh had been watching nearby.
Timothy McVeigh had already apparently been very concerned about what had happened at Ruby Ridge. So he came down to Waco and sold bumper stickers with pro-gun, anti-government slogans.
He saw the raid as clear evidence of what the government would do to try to confiscate guns and persecute gun owners.
Timothy McVeigh himself wasn't a member of a militia, but you're convinced that that context is the way to understand him?
McVeigh himself writes — he talks in interviews that we got access to and tape-recorded interviews about the anger he felt, the rage he felt at Ruby Ridge in particular, and Waco, and the radicalization that happened in part because of those events, and, in addition to that, a series of other exposures to this movement.
"The Turner Diaries" was his bible. "The Turner Diaries" is a horrible novel, racist novel that became a — it's almost a talisman to this movement, a very important motivating force. And I think it actually describes the bombing of an FBI building in Washington.
It's even a model.
It describes the kind of bomb. It's very similar to the one McVeigh used.
So, he was steeped in the ideas of this movement. He was steeped in the ideology. It's a very diffuse movement. And being a member of a militia is really sort of irrelevant.
JERRY FLOWERS, Police Inspector:
We could hear people screaming. We could hear them screaming. We could hear them crying. You just couldn't see them because it was so dark.
The documentary breaks often from that history to return to the bombing itself, talking with eyewitnesses who still hold painful memories.
They had no idea.
It shows how much confusion there was initially about who had carried it out, and the surprise when McVeigh was arrested.
I think everybody felt this sudden sense of betrayal. I think everyone thought, you're one of us.
People forget that, in the days and hours after the bombing, everyone assumed it had been Middle Eastern terrorism. This was bandied about on national television and CNN and CBS and all the networks. They were all focused on Middle Eastern terrorism. And their sources were telling them that it was likely a Middle Eastern terrorist.
The film also shows the role conspiracy theories about Waco and Ruby Ridge played in roiling this right-wing movement. Some will no doubt see parallels to today.
Goodman takes a longer view.
I would say that this is a movement that waxes and wanes throughout American history and sort of appears in different forms, whether it's going back to Shays' Rebellion at the beginning of the history of our country, up through the Red Scare, the Klan years.
There's a lot of different manifestations. But what unites all of it are two things, really. One is a deep enmity towards the federal government, a feeling that the federal government is the seed of all evil and it's a tool in the hands of enemies, like the Jews, like blacks, like the U.N. now.
The other thing that really characterizes it is sort of conspiratorial thinking, that — a way of connecting dots that places movement in a kind of context of a war.
KERRY NOBLE, Former Militia Member:
And in this war, it's an all or nothing. We are either going to win as the white race, or we're going to lose.
Despite the theories of a larger conspiracy at work, the film shows how McVeigh, with some help from two friends, was able to pull off the bombing.
Did you come to any conclusions about how this act of domestic terrorism changed the country or changed our sense of our own security, ourselves?
I think it had a tremendously transformative effect.
I think, first of all, for law enforcement, there was never again a naivete about the threat from domestic terrorism. I think, if you went to the FBI today and you really talked to people, unlike perhaps some politicians, they are very focused on the threat from domestic terrorism. They understand it and they're paying attention to it.
And I think, just for the ordinary citizen, although this movement is so — kind of oscillates. It sort of can, and it did after Oklahoma City, retreat and recede, that we sometimes forget about it. It's still there. It never goes away. And then it will come back.
And I think, in recent years, you have seen more and more of an uptick. Dylann Roof in Charleston and any number of other such actions are no longer quite as shocking. We understand that this is part now of a motif in American life. And I think that the recent incarnation of that started with Oklahoma City and Timothy McVeigh.
From Washington, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.
"Oklahoma City" airs tonight on most PBS stations.
Watch the Full Episode
Frank Carlson is a general assignment producer at the PBS NewsHour, where he's been making video since 2010. @frankncarlson
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