June 11, 2001 -- The day that an unprecedented 242 individuals watched Timothy McVeigh die by lethal injection. Ten viewed the execution live in Terre Haute, Indiana, and 232 viewed by remote closed-circuit broadcast in Oklahoma City.
That year, I was a graduate student, hungry for that engrossing yet elusive "change-the-world" research topic. I remember being horrified by the onslaught of media coverage of McVeigh's execution. He was everywhere -- a constant media presence. News pundits were fixated on the question of whether his execution should be broadcast live, why many family members and survivors wanted to witness it, and whether that experience would affect "closure." Haunted by the prominence of McVeigh's glowering mug, I undertook to investigate how capital trials and executions impact victims' families and survivors, choosing the Oklahoma City Bombing as a case study that ultimately became a book.
The facts of the bombing and the personalities of its perpetrators infused the story with a dark fascination. There was "trigger man" Timothy McVeigh, who in the six years from his arrest to his execution had fleshed out from a spare, sinister young man to a softer, deceptively boyish figure. There was Terry Nichols, an innocuous-looking middle-aged guy with a wife and kids who had been extraordinarily involved, helping to mix the chemicals and construct the truck bomb. And there was Michael Fortier, a long-haired, happy-go-lucky type who had surely known of McVeigh's and Nichols' intentions (and perhaps their plans) but did not contact authorities. All three had been army buddies -- ex-soldiers who were supposed to protect Americans, not murder them. But I didn't want to spend time focusing on the perpetrators in and of themselves; they had received far too much attention as it was. I was interested in the perspectives of family members and survivors.
Interviewing these individuals was a heart-wrenching, grievous process. Stories tumbled out of my participants, often accompanied by tears. But there were good memories there, too. I heard about cherished moments with loved ones murdered in the bombing, and learned what survivors' lives had been like before April 19, 1995. And I treasured accounts of how these individuals had slowly gotten used to their new life in the bombing's aftermath as they confronted the pain of physical, emotional and psychological recovery and remembrance and found solace and friendship in each other's words and arms. As these individuals entrusted me with their stories, I became aware that I had never been touched so deeply, by so many.
From the beginning, Timothy McVeigh was the elephant in the room. In my very first interviews, I danced around the topic of McVeigh as if I were walking barefoot on sunbaked blacktop, afraid to linger too long on that topic lest I awaken anger or pain. But then I learned that the undercurrents of anger and pain would be there regardless of whether or not I asked questions about McVeigh, and that I just had to swim with, not against, the natural conversational flow of the interviews. I gradually understood that, unlike Nichols and Fortier, McVeigh had been a painfully palpable presence in the lives of most family members and survivors until his execution removed him from the media spotlight. As one participant remarked, "McVeigh, even though he knew that he was getting the death sentence, he was defiant all the way up to the point where it actually happened... He would speak out to the media... And everything that he did was doing nothing but hurting the family members here in Oklahoma."
In the months prior to his execution, McVeigh was everywhere. His authorized biography was released in April of 2001. Journalists seized upon his final moments as the story of the year. After McVeigh was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001, the national news media rolled out-of-town and, for the most part, out of family members' and survivors' lives. For the first time in what felt like an eternity, you could turn on the television or switch on the radio and not cringe in anticipation of seeing his face or hearing his name. And, for most, this reprieve brought a welcome peace. It's unclear what would have happened if McVeigh had received life in prison, like Terry Nichols. One wonders whether he would have continued to live at the center of a media maelstrom, or whether, like Nichols, he would have become fairly quiet. But we will never know.
Today, however, my focus is Timothy McVeigh. I am writing about him because I am afraid that we will forget him. For in forgetting him, we overlook others like him -- individuals who not only have an insidious world view but who have the conceit to take others' lives in acting upon it. If we forget McVeigh, we might grow dangerously complacent behind memorial walls and too content in our memories. The lesson of McVeigh is unsettling -- that such a toxic event could happen again. McVeigh's execution feeds into the myth of closure in that it contributed to a silence that some could mistake for finality. But with finality comes the temptation to forget, and with forgetting comes the chance that we might relax our vigilance, closet our fears, and commit the fatal mistake of overlooking someone like McVeigh. And so we must continue to remember, and watch, and wait, honoring our pasts but taking care to protect our futures.