The central insight of Barak Goodman’s new documentary, OKLAHOMA CITY, presented by American Experience and airing on February 7th, is that the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building by homegrown radical Timothy McVeigh was not a singular event, but a signpost on the road of radical right extremism that the United States has been traveling down for decades.
Goodman opens his film with the devastation caused by the truck bomb and the initial media frenzy around possible suspects. He pays particular attention to the drama surrounding locating the children who had been in the Murrah building’s day care center, forcing us to concentrate on the worst damage that the bomb did, giving the audience a refresher on the destruction and the death toll of the worst incident of domestic terrorism in the United States. An invaluable voice that Goodman returns to over and over in this documentary is McVeigh’s own. The source of the audio is never explained to us, but they are clearly the words of the bomber explaining his mission: The war between the patriots and the government had already started, his bomb was just a counterattack.
With that introduction, Goodman takes us back to the real subject of the documentary, the intellectual and actual history of violent, gun-based, white supremacist separatism in the United States, the movement that spawned McVeigh and . . . well, Steve Bannon, current Senior Strategist to Donald Trump. Goodman’s documentary is an able and oblique commentary on the current state of the alt-right, without actually using that term. It’s sly and effective because he simply presents the words of the Aryan Nations and Richard Butler, a vile racist who was regarded as crazy in the 1980s, but whose words find an easy home in today’s alt-right media centers. When Butler says that the only way to save America is to assert white Christian sovereignty, it is impossible not to recognize the spiritual connection between the militia members who are desperate to attack the American state and the people who currently run it.
Goodman takes us through a comprehensive tour of extreme domestic terrorism, including the standoffs that killed Bob Matthews, founder of The Order, the botched raids at Ruby Ridge, and eventually, the key confrontation animating white extremists in the early 1990’s: the Branch Davidian confrontation outside Waco, TX.
The Branch Davidians were an offshoot of the 7th Day Adventists who had been around for 50 years before a charismatic leader named David Koresh hypnotized them with prophecies of the end of the world and withdrew them within the walls of that compound. When the ATF got word of illegal weapons moving in and out of the Davidian compound, they moved in, too hard, too fast. They were fired upon almost immediately and retreated in disorder. The ensuing standoff became a pilgrimage site for folks like Timothy McVeigh, a veteran whose story we learn in bits and pieces throughout the documentary, as his personal wanderings and musings intersect with the larger story of the white supremacist movement. By 1993, McVeigh was struggling to make it outside the service. He made his living selling The Turner Diaries and other racist paraphernalia at gun shows across the country. Ironically, the Davidians were not white supremacists, but they became a cause célèbre because they preached one of the same messages: the government is coming for us and our guns. The Waco standoff lasted for 51 days.
The standoff ended when the FBI went in to tear down the walls of the compound, even as Koresh and others had been spreading fuel around the compound. Listening stations spread around the compound picked up the sound of this plan, but it wasn’t processed by the FBI before the entire compound was in flames. The hard right immediately turned the incident into propaganda, using by now familiar methods: espousing invented theories that take it for granted that the government was trying to cover up evidence of the true events of the massacre, which they consider to be a crime against the people (9/11 didn’t invent truthers, they’ve been with us for a long time). The Brady Bill was signed almost immediately afterward, convincing McVeigh and many others that there was an undeclared war on Christians with guns. By the end of 1993 there was a huge underground preaching armed resistance to the federal government.
Goodman finishes his documentary with the story of McVeigh’s careless bomb making and his uneasy confederates as well as the manhunt, including the largest investigation in history, that swiftly caught up with McVeigh, who has since been executed. The documentary is workmanlike and doesn’t use any uncommon or unconventional methods to tell the story, but Goodman’s work is alive with an urgent sense of the connection between history and the current moment. In the end, Goodman argues, Timothy McVeigh was not the real perpetrator in Oklahoma City: it lays at the feet of the movement that spawned him. A movement that now has an avatar or two in the White House to go with the 500 militant white supremacist groups currently active in the United States. Goodman attempts at consolation, coming from one of the first responders in OKC, ring much more feebly than his clarion warnings. “I hope that love is stronger than any terrorist attack,” remains a noble sentiment, though, and one that we will need to cling to in the days ahead.