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Al Eisele

Al Eisele

Posted: April 19, 2010 11:02 PM

Pondering Timothy McVeigh's Lethal Legacy

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I watched with more than a passing interest news coverage of Monday's ceremony at the Oklahoma City National Memorial commemorating the 15th anniversary of the bombing of a federal building that killed 168 people because I've had a constant reminder of it for the past two-and-a-half years. And I felt a sense of uneasiness as I wondered if we've learned any lessons from it.

The reminder is a dark blue coffee mug that sits on my desk, in my office and at home, which bears a large oval made from Oklahoma's ubiquitous red clay that is etched with the words "Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum." Inside the oval is an impressionistic outline of a tree, called the Survivor Tree.

The Survivor Tree is a scraggly 90-year-old American elm that stands on the highest point of the three-acre site in downtown Oklahoma City that was, until Sept. 11, 2001, the worst act of terrorism on American soil. It was badly damaged, but survived, and is now surrounded by a circular granite inscribed with the words, "The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us."

You cannot go there, as I did many times while teaching at the University of Oklahoma in the fall of 2007, without being profoundly moved.

You think about how a 27-year-old anti-government fanatic named Timothy McVeigh loaded a truck with 4,800 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil and detonated it in directly in front of the nine-story Alfred P. Murragh Federal Building at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995. The explosion, which was felt 40 miles away, created a 30-foot crater and blew away the front of the building, collapsing its floors and trapping victims inside.

And if you tour the Memorial's museum, located in a former newspaper building facing the Murragh Building, which also was badly damaged, as were some 300 other surrounding buildings, you will be even more moved. It's a stunning museum, but the most stunning thing is sitting in a darkened room and listening to an audio of a routine hearing underway at the nearby Oklahoma Water Resources Board, and then hearing the actual explosion and confusion that followed.

Equally unforgettable is the news footage taken minutes after the explosion and the video of the chaos that followed as rescue workers tried to dig victims out of the rubble. Especially chilling is the footage from a security camera that captured McVeigh driving his truck past a nearby apartment building just before reaching his target. The axle housing of his truck, which was found 575 feet away from the explosion, is also on display, along with hundreds of personal items and artifacts.

There's much more to see and hear at this incredibly moving Memorial, including the 168 metal chairs arrayed alongside a 318-foot reflecting pool that represents the people who died that terrible day. But perhaps the most moving sights, especially if you go there at night, are the illuminated metal chairs bearing the names of the victims, especially the small chairs with the names of the 19 children who were in the building's day care center that fateful morning.

And then, as you proceed around the Memorial grounds, you encounter hundreds of hand-painted ceramic tiles from children, one of which asks the impossible question: "Can't we all just get along?" And along the wall outside the Memorial are hundreds of personal messages and notes, including teddy bears and children's toys. And just across the street is an arresting statue of a Christ figure holding its hands over its eyes as though unable to comprehend the senseless violence before it.

Ironically, my initial visit took place shortly after I arrived in Oklahoma on the same day that hundreds of people gathered in Littleton, Colo., to dedicate a memorial to the victims of the Columbine High School massacre, and only a few months after I drove from Washington to Oklahoma and passed by Blacksburg, Va., where 32 students were murdered by a crazed gunman on April 16, 2007, and Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., the scene of an historic desegregation battle half a century ago.

When I was teaching at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, 30 miles south of Oklahoma City, I often took the journalists, politicians, authors and newspaper publishers I'd invited to speak to my students to see the Oklahoma City National Memorial before driving them to Norman. Often it was in the late afternoon and early evening, and they were silent and usually speechless after viewing the illuminated chairs of the victims arrayed around the reflecting pool.

I've been there at least a half dozen time since, as recently as last fall, and each time, I came away convinced that history constantly confronts us with haunting reminders of the good and evil that human beings are capable of. Oklahoma City, it seemed to me, still bears many scars, physical and emotional, from that terrible day 15 years ago. But I was always comforted by the feeling that it had found strength and solace in a place where compassion and kindness overcame an evil act of terrorism.

Now, however, I'm not so sure. I hear the expressions of rage and hatred directed towards Washington and the Obama administration from the Tea Partiers and those who see the federal government as oppressors and enemies of the people. And I see those who insist on carrying loaded weapons to public rallies, as they did in Virginia today, and I wonder if there are more Oklahoma Cities in our future. I certainly hope not, but I suspect there are more Timothy McVeighs out there, waiting to imitate his crazed impulses.