I always found Jeffrey Toobin’s law commentary on CNN engaging. He also chooses interesting topics for his books, for example, Patty Hearst, Monica Lewinsky, etc. When I listened to an interview with him about his new book, I immediately purchased it on Apple Books.
1990s American history and pop culture are a bit of a blank for me. I lived in Colombia and Bolivia from 1992 to 1999 and in the days before the Internet, I couldn’t follow events in America. I remembered seeing the image of the Oklahoma City federal building torn in half by a truck bomb and I remember McVeigh’s stern face on the perp walk, but not much else about the incident. Toobin covers the entire story from McVeigh’s childhood, to making the truck bomb and to the trial. He also connects McVeigh’s extreme right-wing, pro-guns, anti-government beliefs to today’s groups like the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers and the January 6 riot on the Capitol.
I think Toobin is right about McVeigh being a forerunner of today’s QAnon/Proud Boys/Trump base supporters. I grew up in rural Michigan and understand the Libertarian worldview. Toobin describes my home state, “Michigan is Detroit – attached to Idaho. The great mass of the state is rural, agricultural, and a hotbed of right-wing extremism.” My part of Michigan is too far north to be agricultural and the state has some of the most liberal laws in the land (legal marijuana, LGBTQ rights) and has always been a strong Democratic labor union state. So we are far from being Idaho, but his point is that there are lots of “red-state” areas outside of the cities and university towns. I didn’t know that McVeigh’s partner in the bombing, Terry Nichols, was from Lapeer County, in the “thumb” of Michigan. McVeigh was from a town outside of Buffalo, New York.
Toobin’s thesis is without the easy communication of today, McVeigh and extremists like him, were isolated back before the Internet. He was greatly influenced by radio commentator Rush Limbaugh and another radio voice in Arizona. McVeigh also read a book called The Turner Diaries which he quoted from often. McVeigh was convinced in his mind that he was like the patriots of the 18th century, fighting against the tyranny of an oppressive ruler. The FBI storming of the Waco Compound really angered him. All of this rage building inside of him resulted in the bombing.
The bombing was horrific with 163 people killed, 15 who were children at the day care center in the Murrah Building. The blast registered 6.0 on the Richter scale and was felt 55 miles away. It was one of the biggest mass killings in American history. McVeigh rightly got the death penalty and Nichols is serving life without the possibility of parole. Another friend of McVeigh, who was a key witness in the case, ended up with 10 years in prison as well.
I see a lot of young men with similar issues to Timothy McVeigh today. A generation ago, there were manufacturing jobs to provide men without a university education or a high level of skills with enough income to attract a wife and provide for a family. I think of my uneducated uncles from my adopted mother’s side of the family. My Uncle Dan worked in a warehouse, my Uncle Norman at a paper mill and they could afford really nice homes in the suburbs of Green Bay, Wisconsin. I am not sure if it is so easy today. McVeigh should have never left the military. He was a decorated soldier in the invasion of Kuwait. He failed to get into the Green Berets and that soured him on a military career. Instead, he left to a life of poverty and wandering. He earned a living through having a small table at gun shows and occasional retail or security guard jobs. What he needed was meaningful work, a woman who loved him, and hope for the future through children. The result was the tragic loss of life.
Below are some other thoughts from the book.
- American gun advocates are misguided if they think that gun ownership can defend them against the US government.
- McVeigh was a “white separatist” not a “white supremacist”. He hated immigration, the industrial decline of Buffalo, and women moving out of the traditional roles of housewife and mother.
- Newt Gingrich was one of the first politicians that started the tribalism movement that pervades politics today. He said some vile things, comparing Democrats to the Nazis and calling them sick, pathetic, anti-flag, traitors. This attitude does us no good.
- Toobin quotes psychiatrist James Gilligan, “One of the special characteristics that predispose men to commit murder, or other serious physical violence, is an unusually strong wish to be loved and taken care of, and unusually strong feelings of being inadequate and unloveable.”
- Toobin mentioned Elohim City, a small religious community of a few hundred people with white supremacist orientation 200 miles east of Oklahoma City. I can’t believe compounds like this still exist.
- Toobin refered to a study showing right-wing extremism was responsible for 76 percent of all extremist murders in the USA from 2009 to 2019. Islamic extremists 20% and Black nationalists 3%.