With the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing fast approaching on Monday, I took out a book I’ve owned but not read about Tim McVeigh. American Terrorist by Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck resonates for me because I know both of the authors and come from the area where McVeigh grew up. When we discovered he was from upstate New York, we were all shocked and horrified and asked the gasping question – WHY? Why did a man from a small semi-rural town come to be one of the nation’s most profound mass murderers? Why did this very ordinary young man come to hate his nation so profoundly that he would wantonly take these lives?
Monday, April 19 MSNBC will run a two-hour special not just on the bombing but on McVeigh. Back in 2001, before McVeigh was executed, Lou and Dan published their insightful book. Based on hours and hours of interviews with McVeigh, it struggled to answer the question of what motivated McVeigh to do this dreadful deed, but the last word in the book remains – Why?
I cannot claim to have an answer, but I think it lies in much of what all of us have long discussed about hate, tea parties, disinterested yet opinionated progressives: we are a nation that has so fundamentally elevated hyper individualism that we are raising a nation of fragmented and isolated people. We are creating monsters among us who have absolutely no compassion. None. Even within so-called progressive circles, we find the embodiment of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous line: ” I love humanity but I hate people.”
Lou and Dan recounted a rather pedestrian upbringing for Tim McVeigh. Yes his parents divorced, yes he had some personal set backs despite what began as a shining career in the military. He failed to make the cut for Special Forces, and it changed him from a perfectionist to a fairly grotty drifter before he found a renewed purpose in life: killing people to kill our government.
Throughout the book, his fascination with guns was obvious. He said that the only person for whom he ever felt love was his grandfather, Ed McVeigh, who taught him hunting and marksmanship skills, but had he never laid his hands on a gun, he was already headed down a path of utter emotional isolation and lack of compassion for others.
Gun ownership became the medium for his distance from others – owning guns, all types and kinds, was a major objective of his life. He hated the 1994 ban on ownership of assault weapons, and since gun possession was the reason behind both Ruby Ridge and Waco interventions by the federal authorities, it certainly was an issue.
But the bombing was not caused, in my opinion, by his love of guns. It was caused by his indifference to people, to a sense of community and nation, by his utter coldness about the value of human life. I believe that indifference has become pandemic in America, and it is contributing to the utter depravity of our politics, of our budget decisions, of our contempt for “the other” among us, and even of our neighbor.
The loss of community probably comes in part from our high level of mobility. Most of us do not live where we grew up, and as fairly rootless people, we make acquaintances more than friends. But that could not describe McVeigh who had much that we claim should have abetted a sense of connection to at least those with whom he lived. It did not. When he determined to do his evil act, he thought of his father and dismissed him and his sister as disposable – too bad they will suffer, but hey. Worse, McVeigh knew of the babies and toddlers in the daycare center at the Murrah Building and dismissed them as merely “collateral damage”.
I remember during the early Civil Rights days that LIFE magazine had a feature on altruism. (Can you imagine such a feature today?) It was a well-researched and written documentation of our belief or rejection of our connection to others and our obligation to support other people’s rights. Overall the findings were that in the early 1960s, much of the nation felt a connection with others, not always around civil rights, but with respect for other people’s well being at least equal to their own.
I wonder what polls would tell us today about such compassion, such a sense of commitment, such a willingness to share.
I mark the absolute change in our national self perception to 1975 with the publication of Crisis of Democracy. Virtually no ordinary American read this tome – it was the result of policy recommendations from three authors, Michael Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanabe who produced this global capitalist manifest for the Trilateral Commission. It was the blueprint for the New World Order and directed that if we were to have a successful global economy, all nations needed to do several things, chief among them the destruction of democracy. We needed to get past the direction of policy by the electorate and ground it exclusively in the hands of elites who obviously knew best for how we were to live. They recommended curtailing a free press, abolishing unions, and generally imposing these massive changes in economic operations from the top down. Working people were totally fungible – any worker who could work for less was preferable to one who worked for more. It was thus the death knell for any value of the middle and working class in America and equally the death knell for our sense of compassion for one another. Crisis of Democracy did not say but did support a return to a 19th-century sort of Social Darwinism – survival of the fittest who would become the ruling class while the others, all of us, would be left with scraps and with whatever they chose to give us. That turned out to be as little as possible.
By the 1990s, following Reagan’s relentless assault on government and its obligation to assure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for every person, compassion had been replaced by hyper individualism covered in a pastiche of “personal responsibility”. We dismantled the self-help programs of the Great Society, and, leaving those in poverty bereft of help just as private industry and business was shedding jobs and any ability to help oneself, we blamed the victims. Worse – we demonized them as lazy and shiftless or stupid. Class and race became the markers for our distancing of self from others, and once that was done, it was only a short step from that to distance from all other people.
Living in upstate New York, I got to know hundreds of union men and women. I helped document the last moments of Bethlehem Steel’s Lackawanna steel plant, shut down in 1983 costing over 20,000 jobs. Some years later, a well to do liberal dismissed my concern for all those lives, all those families now without work and income, by saying, “Oh God – I’m so glad it’s gone! It is so ugly!” I asked him how he could dismiss all those jobs, and he just blew it off. He was utterly without concern for them, and while he engaged in conversation about all kinds of causes, he did nothing to improve the life of one other human being. Instead he tied up whole groups in bundles and threw them away.
And we now throw everyone away who is not “us”. The new “liberalism” has a trope that in any circumstance, people all have “agency” and could escape their fate. This is the liberal perspective! It has not quite extended to the Holocaust, but I’ve heard it applied to Native Americans and other groups who, in the best Reaganomic view, were simply not active enough in their own self interest. In the highly popular book, The Secret, this same assertion applies – visualize what you want, and if you don’t get it, well, you just did not try hard enough. Oprah does it, all our self-help magazines do it, and it has become pervasive. It’s a left-right mantra – You’re On Your Own. I am in no way responsible for you, and I do not have to care about you, and injustice cannot exist since it’s all up to you.
However – I may well be a victim. It’s all about me. If I don’t get what I want, it’s your/society/the government’s fault. I lie outside the rules. I deserve. I am the one and only. Not you.
Into this mix come sociopaths with absolutely no feelings and no limits. Into this mix comes Tim McVeigh and his ilk who have taken hyper-individualism to its logical nihilism. Nothing matters outside of what the individual desires and believes to be true. Nothing. No matter how they have screwed up their own lives (such as not paying taxes in the IRS plane disaster) it’s not their individual fault. No matter that the government often supports them financially, it’s the government’s fault for – fill in the blank.
I have not a clue how we alter this pervasive self centered obsession. Inch by inch, moment by moment, day by day, I hope we are changing the message. Obama began it by reminding us we are one people and that we have a superior way of being when we care for the well being of each of us, and of all of us.
But the attractiveness of “me for me alone” will not be changed quickly. In the meantime, we face April 19, the fifteenth anniversary of Oklahoma City, and we wait and wonder if it will happen again. And even knowing that hyper individualism plays a major role, we still have not pinned down the final answer to – Why?
An excellent article, coming at a disquieting time as a solemn and ominous date approaches.
I met a guy who talked about “The Secret”, saying how he no longer feels sympathy for people in tough circumstances because he realizes that through some choice they made or are making, they asked for the circumstances, and did so for their own purposes, ultimately. “All is in perfect order, the universe is unfolding as it should”. His beatific smile annoyed me, but I realized we were on such an entirely different wavelength that there was no point in arguing. It DID occur to me, however, that had I punched him in the face, he would have been hard pressed to accept that he “called it to himself for some purpose” and thank me!
The world is so confusing and big, and filled with so many horrible things, that it is mostly a coping mechanism that we attempt to go the narcissist route, to believe that only we matter. Too many victims, too many natural disasters, too much need and hunger and suffering. The easiest way to make it go away is to flip John Donne the bird and imagine that we are our own islands, with nothing but ourselves to concern ourselves with. I think part of the reason so many people are denying their own humanity and abandoning caring is the sheer overload of suffering taking place upon this fallen world.
You are such an eloquent and intelligent writer, WTS. As is C’lady, who gave us this fine article.
The whole “Secret” fad, propelled by Oprah is just so exasperating. I tend to react to it more viscerally because a good friend of mine was battling cancer when this wave of “insight” was at its peak. Some guy named Eckhart Tolle was pushing the same stuff, too, if I’m not mistaken. My friend became convinced that she had “chosen” cancer for herself, for some unhealthy reason, and that, if she could just figure out what that reason was and then “unchoose” it, she would be healed. With or without any medical treatment. I tried unsuccessfully to convince her that this was magical thinking and –really — a particularly cruel way of blaming the victim for illness or misfortune. But she just couldn’t see it. In a strange way, I think she felt empowered by this false “logic.” In her mind, if she thought herself into trouble and could think herself out of it, the locus of control was all in her. It relieved her of the mind-bending pain of recognizing the relative randomness of everything. Or of the notion that there might have been meaning in her (or other people’s) suffering, but that the meaning and purpose of it all is/was not determined by the sufferer or even immediately knowable by same. She died in January of 2009. And I’ll never believe it was because she “willed that for herself.”
The fact that suffering can produce positive results later on, doesn’t make it in itself a good thing. Americans have an odd relationship with suffering. They run from it like crazy, while refusing to recognize that there is value in some forms of suffering. They refuse to take meaningful steps to alleviate it in someone else (preferring to blame the other for allowing/inducing pain) and yet often use quick/easy short cuts past necessary suffering for themselves (e.g. riding around the grocery store in an electric cart to buy food when they’re too obese to walk, or getting drunk to relieve emotional pain rather than looking inward for the source). To have empathy for a fellow human is painful. It’s a lot easier to unplug the sympathy chip a la Timothy McVeigh and make it “all about me.”
Thank you, Kesmarn, and allow me to laud your eloquence and intelligence as well!
I am sorry to hear about your friend, and I think this situation is not uncommon. A little esoterica can be a dangerous thing. People latching onto, and then marketing, ideas that they don’t fully understand and that traditionally take years of disciplined study and practice to even begin to start sharing with others. You see it all over the New Age: people still in their twenties and thirties, novices by more traditional standards, giving seminars, “certifying” others to give same seminars (those certifications get progressively more expensive in some cases), and frankly dealing with energy that can do damage to people who aren’t equipped to handle it. I have some personal stories in this regard that I could share, but they are called “personal” for a reason, suffice it to say that I jumped, all starry eyed, into the New Age scene, and have come to see it from both sides now, its excellence and its excesses.
WTS and kes – I tried to read “The Secret” and it simply stuck in my craw. The poem khirad noted, Invictus, is the 19thC. example of this hyperindividualism – the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.
By jumping on magical thinking, we comfort ourselves, but at that 11th hour, how can we be anything but horrified that it did not work? If it then permits us to disconnect from everyone around us and permits massive social injustice, then it goes well beyond the personal. Kes – I am so sorry for your friend both for the cancer and the illusion. How awful!
My query – what will it take to bring us to a state of caring for one another both personally and with respect for humanity?
I am seriously well motivated by examples of the poorest people gathering together (no hyperindividualism makes this work) to create change. David Hawkens’ book, “Blessed Unrest” and reports from Grameen Bank and many, many other SUCCESSFUL efforts to build a vibrant and inclusive self-sustaining society really give me hope. I see things back where I lived in Buffalo, NY and other rust bucket communities that also give hope. They have no other choice but to come together in novel ways to rebuild a most damaged economy and society.
But – nationally – what WILL it take to have us work together instead of blowing each other up?
There is a great book, “Gaviotas” about a group of scientists, architects, educators and artists building a sustainable community in an area of Colombia run by drug lords, and actually developing a botanical system that reclaims rain forest lands in a way that mimics how they first developed. I don’t know if such things are even possible on the scale of a whole nation, though. Cities are so big, and they have come to function (actually disfunction) without every person being involved. We have “extra people”, frankly. That is one of the great tragedies of our times. We have reached such a level of technological progress that each member of our cities is not essential to the life of the city as a whole. People need to know where they fit into their communities, and if they don’t, they lose something very precious, the awareness of themselves as contributors. When that goes, all sorts of unpleasantness is likely to follow.
WTS – I’m fascinated by “Gaviotas” though this is the first I’ve heard of it. In CA, at the bend in Hwy 101 is the settlement of Gaviota where, some years ago, there was an enchanting restaurant and shop that was part of a sustainable cooperative community that grew the food and made most of the wares sold there. It’s gone – entirely – now. Wonder if there is a link?
I’m interested as well by your comment that we have too many people, especially in cities. I have a friend who lives in a Rust Belt city, teaches at the local university, but is nevertheless under siege from community do-gooders who are, for whatEVER reason, getting the city to cut healthy mature trees so they can plant new twigs. The leader is a computer engineer (white professional) doing this to a middle class neighborhood but without involving the neighborhood. It’s the outgrowth of a “plan” imposed on the city by PolicyLink that comes into communities, imposes ‘policy’ recommendations that have no link to that community at ALL, and leaves people to be “do gooders” without actually doing good. They believe they know best for all others. And that is what PolicyLink encourages – and it comes down to yet another form of outside control, no accountability, and a rape of neighborhoods that are being made less healthy rather than more. So it’s not just the restless youth that do harm – it’s the self-aggrandized elites as well. And we wonder why disaffected, undereducated Black and Latino kids don’t jump on the bandwagon? No one likes democracy – it’s messy. Bush reflected way too many people’s secret belief that a dictatorship (benevolent, of course) is better.
I think Americans never got over wanting a King, even during the Revolutionary War for independence. We are not fit to govern ourselves if we do not honor each other. And we do not.
To say that I have a problem with “The Secret” and books of that ilk would be like saying that I have issues with being stabbed in the ear with a shiv. Therefore I adore the following review written by Ari Brouillette. About 10,000 people have read this review on amazon.com, and all but a couple hundred found it “helpful.”
I read that last year! I think it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever read online.
LOL!!!! I will NEVER doubt the strength of “The Secret” again – at least from Ch. 6 on!!! Marvelous!
I remember this as the poem McVeigh chose as his last words:
I think it gives a little insight into the subject. Although, I believe the writer probably never intended it in this context, nor to be chosen as inspiration for a terrorist.
C’Lady, while I am uncomfortable with your characterization of Liberals as being elitists, I do recognize that some of us are too dismissive of the values of the conservative, or, better stated I think, apolitical working class.
Here’s how I see them: They work hard at lousy jobs and scrape by. They want what the whole of humanity wants–to lead a peaceful life, raise their kids and avoid calamity. They are satisfied with the occasional luxury of a nice meal, a movie, a Christmas where they can buy their loved ones a few gifts. They want to worship their god and mind their own business, but they are also sympathetic to the plight of the less fortunate. They are too tired and too busy or sometimes too incurious to find out more than the nightly news provides–if that.
My husband works with these men and women and he is often frustrated when he hears them talk about taxes and the government. But from their perspective, DC is another galaxy, far, far away. The government they resent is the DMV, or the building inspector who gives them grief, or the dozens of bureaucrats who seem to live to torment them– not even the Feds. It’s all just “the government.”
They see shrinking buying power and blame the taxes they pay–mostly municipal–for which they see bad schools and crumbling infrastructure. They also see incompetence and waste– and fat cat politicians. Their paychecks don’t go far enough, and those taxes infuriate them, but they don’t really connect the dots. The “government” is an easy, thoughtless target.
They are low information voters. I am unhappy about that, but I understand it.
One last word about the Limousine Liberals– at least they contribute to progressive causes. That’s much more than I can say about the corporatists. I was a VP for many years at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and worked with the very people you describe. I loathed them– rich prima donnas who felt entitled. (Thank God I didn’t work in Development! But wherever one worked at the Federation, we were required to kowtow.)So I know where you’re coming from. But bottom line, without them, we wouldn’t have raised the $40 million a year that helped the community. I know you know this, but it was something I had to remind myself several times a day.
I myself will admit to having a little Edna St. Vincent Millay in me, but I would have never said that about the factory. I help out another when I can, and I hate walking past those begging for change (though it can be a racket, most often); because I do feel for people down on their luck, who but for the whims of fate, could be me.
By the way, I so despise those types of liberals too, but they are a necessary evil. I don’t come by them, though. I’m not exactly an upper crust type of socialite. And even if I were born into it, I’d not feel comfortable, I imagine.
You always keep me honest – it’s not all liberals, because of course many are really good, get involved, care about others. But over the last 15 years, I’ve been increasingly horrified at the self serving dismissal of “the other” by those who do claim to love humanity – it’s people they can’t stand. I know the types you mean, who give money but demand fealty. To see academics dismiss centuries of racism and genocide with the idea that somehow people just did not fight hard enough for their rights – appalling!
My point is that the narcissism of a Tim McVeigh can and does have its counterweight even among liberals, not that ALL liberals think that way. My concern is the narcissism and what it leads to in dismissing people and thus demonizing them and even killing them or creating policies that throw them on the trash heap.
I just don’t understand what happened to caring and concern and how so many of us, from different points of view, came to see other people as unimportant.
This is heartening!
The Other 95% – Counter Tea Party Rally in DC 04-15-10
Let’s give these guys a hand:
By the way, it was indeed a gorgeous day today. But all I heard was the ruckus, I didn’t see any of it. I love this sign, though.
Tonight, I hope you write about your adventures!
Will do, Cher, just taking a break right now before dinner. 😉
Excellent piece CL.
I realize there is a pathology among the really violent, but there are mentally ill homeless people I’d trust way more than people such as McVeigh. In one passage of American Terrorist, the authors note that McVeigh went to Area 51 (the supposed UFO landing site) to challenge the feds on their ‘stay out’ orders. He was minimally armed, and he entered the fenced in area only to encounter a blackhawk helicopter. He waved, and it left. He was never arrested or even accosted. Now, rather than assume that the federal government actually did NOT shoot people down for being in that area, he assumed he had outwitted them, shown his superior force (one skinny guy with a rifle?), and that it proved he was better than the entire U.S. government. He the MAN!
OK – when you’re THAT much of a megalomaniac, there is probably something so wrong inside you cannot be fixed, but that is what is happening here. I would not be surprised to learn that Andrew Stack thought he could fly his plane into the IRS building and walk away. In 2001 a guy drove his truck into the CA capitol building out of frustration with the DMV. He was terrified of fire – and by fire he died. He wedged his doors closed in the building alcove and when it burst into flame, he could not get out. And I will always believe, due to notes he left, he thought he’d walk out, too.
Magical thinking meets political zealotry. Bad mix.
Cheers CL that’s exactly the way I fell abut Stack too. He’s a murdering terrorist period. He deserved no empathy because like you I think he really thought he would survive. It makes me sick that people fell for his faux manifesto when it was really about him not staying at the level he thought he was entitled to as his birth right. The people that supposedly want something free from the government are far fewer in number that people who think their skin color entitles them to receive the American dream they chose to define.
It shocks me, BT, that we have this intersection. I certainly did not know McVeigh, but he crossed my path a couple of times though I did not know it until later. As of your post on Miss Laura, this suddenly takes on an entirely new weight – this is not about abstractions, this is about known people killing other known people. Your story, more than any I’ve read, brings home the enormity of what one fanatic can cost a world.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I have known 5 people – friends and acquaintances – cut down by RW extremists. That is insane. I don’t live in a manner that would make sense of that – I’m not a violent or dangerous extremist myself. So how could this be true in America?
These acts of extremity defy all our known standards of what we expect in this country. Good bye to peace of mind and happily ever after. Welcome to the coo-coo nest.
If I were one of Party Crashers
LOL!!! I read that there is a group infiltrating the TPs doing something of that sort. I wish I could recall where I read it, but the guy leading it says if you see a wacko in a gorilla suit with a weird, extremist sign, it MAY be one of his group. If that same wacko is throwing stones – definitely NOT his group. They are trying to make the covert racism and other sentiments open and above board. Don’t know how I feel about that, but there is something kind of funny about it!
Kesmarn was the first to mention it here, and you might have seen some of us discuss it too. I can’t find her original post, but here is another about them:
That’s it – thanks! I’m not sure they’re OK either, but at least they’re challenging the dominance of the language and issues dredged up by the tea bag folks.
It was TPM
It’s ironic that domestic terrorists only lasted for a few years in the 1960’s and early 1970 on the left. The FBI and law enforcement were on the Weathermen, Symbionese Liberation Army, etc. very quickly. But with the rise of the right wing terrorists in the late 1980’s and 1990’s the government took a hands off approach even though they knew who many of these people were and what they were capable of. All you heard about was the Ruby Ridge and Branch Davidian events. And they were considered isolated events.
Now what is scarier is the instant communication that these right wing terrorists have at their disposal and the fact that they believe it’s OK to plot against the government and cry foul when they are exposed by wiretapping or informants. It’s obvious now that the Bush – Cheney administration with their failed policy of fighting terrorists by starting needless wars, set this nation back several years in protecting it’s citizens.
dilden – you are so correct!
That lack of commitment from the feds to dealing with American Terrorists has caused this nation no end of grief. I may not be recalling it correctly, but I can remember only a handful of violent acts during the anti-war period: the bombing at U. of Wisconsin that took a life; the SLA actions; the failed attempt of the Weather Underground; the townhouse in NYC that cost the perpetrators their lives.
When it comes to the Right, however, their acts get dismissed as ‘lunatic fringe’ rather than part of larger movements. The Right works very hard to pretend they have no role in motivating the violence that is hugely more frequent and lethal than anything the “left” ever did.
Excellent point. Also, when the Homeland Security report came out last April on domestic terrorism threats, they used terms like “extremist” and “fringe” which is too vague and has no meaning. The real labels are “white supremacists” “bigots” “homophobes” and “nativists.” I think it is more helpful to identify their ideology, and not let it go with terms like the “lunatic fringe.”