In October of last year, in southwestern Kansas, three members of a militia called the “Crusaders” were arrested and charged with planning to blow up an apartment complex in tiny Garden City housing 120 Somali immigrants. According to Tom Beall, the acting U.S. state’s attorney, one defendant had said that the Crusaders had planned to “wake people up.”
That story might have slipped past you in the tumult of late 2016, as some 63 million Americans prepared to show through their votes that they already were awoken to whatever xenophobic fantasy had (allegedly!) spurred the Crusaders to action. But I bet that story doesn’t surprise you. And I bet you can already picture the men facing the charges: white guys of joyless countenance, sharing memes about how no federal bureaucrat is gonna take their guns, bristling at how a country long set up to make them feel by-birth important has begun to give way to 21st-century multiculturalism.
The stereotype matches the reality in this case — well before his arrest, suspect Curtis Allen insisted on Facebook that Hillary Clinton had vowed to put the likes of him “in relearning centers and FEMA camps.”
What has gone wrong in men like Allen? In the school shooters and the Pepe trolls, the lulz-bros happy to watch the republic burn if it means the chance to swig from a mug of libtard tears? It’s a joke in lefty social media to post an image of Klansmen or American Nazis with a tagline like “Trump won because of economic anxiety.” We can’t explain the election so simply, but here are two propositions worth considering: 1) The traits and talents that millions of American men are encouraged to develop at home, in school, and in our media culture have jack shit to do with traits and talents rewarded by America’s economy. 2) Dudes for whom life is working out don’t tend to be mad bombers.
All that’s to say that Barak Goodman’s Oklahoma City — a documentary about exactly what you think it’s about — benefits from fortuitous timing. The film is brisk, tense, and informative, always compelling as it surveys the rise of the right-wing militias that boomed in the Clinton era. Elements of Goodman’s précis of the standoffs at Waco and Ruby Ridge might even surprise those of us who paid attention during the era. Here’s 1993 video footage of Timothy McVeigh himself, gawky and chill, peddling bumper stickers to spectators not far from the Branch Davidian compound. One reads “Fear the Government That Fears Your Guns.” Just two years later, on the anniversary of the compound’s immolation, McVeigh’s bomb would kill 168 in Oklahoma City.
Goodman outlines the basics of McVeigh’s life. Unsurprisingly, the man believed it was his duty to send a message. We hear a recording of McVeigh admitting that he wanted a body count — that’s what would make the attack mean something. Also unsurprising: After washing out of training in the Airborne Rangers, he couldn’t find much in the way of job prospects, leaving this angry — possibly traumatized — ex-sniper with time on his hands.
The film traces the steps of his bomb-making and eventual capture. It reports his reading habits (The Turner Diaries, an early classic of fake news), his disillusionment with Army life (he was surprised that he didn’t love killing Iraqis), and his outrage at what he viewed as a tyrannical federal government. It shows us the flames of his fury and tries to identify the match that lit them, but it offers little insight into just why he was so combustible. Occasionally Goodman resorts to serial-killer-movie cliché, showing us a corkboard pinned over with headlines and photos, a string from each tying back to McVeigh in the center. He can trace the connections but not the deeper why. Why was there no other way that this man could find to make himself matter in this world?
Still, Goodman scores a high class of talking heads: writers and journalists, survivors and witnesses, first responders and FBI investigators. There are tears and terror, and one story of an emergency amputation in the wreckage that takes an impossible MacGyver turn. Daniel Levitas offers insight into radicalization, citing gun shows as a key distribution point of “the anti-government message which cloaked itself in the paraphernalia of patriotism.” But mostly the film is a procedural, reporting on the search for a suspect rather than searching for much itself. Perhaps that’s wise. What does it benefit us to understand the mind of such a man? Might an immersion into it be poisoning? Or might it help us to understand why radio host Alex Jones still calls Oklahoma City an “inside job” done by the feds — and why the president himself has toasted Jones’s show as “the main operating system of the rebirth of the American republic”?
Garden City, Kansas, is some 250 miles away from Junction City, the Army town in the middle of the state where McVeigh rented the Ryder truck he loaded with explosives and drove to the Murrah Federal Building. Culturally, though, it’s pretty close. In 2010 in Junction City I saw a billboard reading “Obama Is a Fraud. Demand Resignation Now” looming just over the parking lot of the then-shuttered Dreamland Motel, the dive where McVeigh had stayed the week before the bombing. That billboard — that proclamation not just of hate but of desperate, fearful urgency — was a clearer message than any bomb. I interviewed the Denver woman who had paid for it and asked if she had intended for it to inspire resistance among the soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Riley. “Yes,” she said. “The military should cease to obey orders from Obama (or any CIC) that seeks to…”
A list followed. A long and dumb list of the made-up crimes of a supposed tyrant. A list McVeigh might once have tried to pare down to a bumper sticker.
That billboard is no longer shocking. By 2016, its sentiment would be mainstream politics, and not just from the Trumps of the world. Remember Marco Rubio saying Benghazi “disqualified” Hillary Clinton from the presidency? What still shocks, and what must always shock: where that message comes from, and whose message it is.
Directed by Barak Goodman
American Experience Films
Opens February 3, IFC Center
Premieres February 7 on PBS
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