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?