How White Supremacists Birthed the Worst Act of Domestic Terrorism in U.S. History

Barak Goodman’s gripping new documentary, Oklahoma City, has all-too-relevant insights to impart—and warnings to scream—about Trump’s America.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh drove a Ryder rental truck filled with bombs of his own creation into Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which housed offices for (among others) HUD, ATF, USMC, DEA, and Social Security. The ensuing explosion, which reduced an entire side of the structure to rubble, was the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history, resulting in 168 dead, including 19 children who were attending daycare in the building that morning. That McVeigh perpetrated this crime, and did so by and large on his own, is not in dispute – unless, that is, you’re a right-wing conspiracy-theory loon like Infowars' Alex Jones, who's long proclaimed that it was a “false flag” attack carried out by the U.S. government. And yet what many may not know, and what Barak Goodman’s Oklahoma City argues with clarity and precision, is that McVeigh wasn’t just a murderous psycho. Instead, he was also a byproduct of a racist white-nationalist movement that, for decades, had been gaining traction in this country – and which now appears to once again be on the rise thanks to the election of President Donald J. Trump.

Set for its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this Saturday, Goodman’s documentary – produced for PBS’s American Experience (which will broadcast it on Feb. 7) – is a riveting account of that fateful day in Oklahoma City, which stunned the nation but was, in fact, the culmination of a series of events dating back at least fifteen years. Oklahoma City opens with audio of a meeting in the Murrah building being interrupted by an unholy rumble, as well as aerial shots of the edifice in absolute ruin. And throughout, it repeatedly returns to personal horror stories from that day, including that of a doctor forced to save a woman trapped in the rubble by performing an on-scene leg amputation, and of parents whose children were killed or wounded by the blast.

Director Goodman’s prime focus, however, is the period of time leading up to the bombing, beginning in the early 1980s in northern Idaho – a remote region which had become a shelter for some of the country’s ugliest neo-Nazi groups, including Richard Butler’s Aryan Nations. A man named Robert Mathews would soon join Butler’s Sieg-Heiling outfit, and when he decided that his comrades were more talk than action, Mathews took matters into his own hands, creating a splinter faction known as The Order that robbed banks and, in June 1984, assassinated anti-right-wing Denver radio host Alan Berg (a Jew, unsurprisingly).

Literally speaking, Mathews had nothing to do with the Oklahoma City bombing; he died in a shootout with federal agents in 1984. Still, his fondness for William Luther Pierce’s 1978 right-wing novel The Turner Diaries – which imagined a band of rebels combatting a tyrannical U.S. government, ultimately by blowing up FBI HQ – would, as Oklahoma City lays out in lucid fashion, help create the modern-day extremist ethos that would subsequently spread to militias, gun shows, and elsewhere. It was a mindset that cloaked itself in patriotism, even as it reveled in the idea of overthrowing the government, which it viewed as an authoritarian regime determined to carry out two crimes against the white man: the destruction of his Christian religion and the confiscation of his guns.

This mixture of anti-establishment paranoia, racial intolerance, and revolutionary fantasy (and don’t forget backwoods idiocy!) quickly led to the 1992 shootout at Ruby Ridge, Idaho between federal agents and the family of Randy Weaver, whom Oklahoma City reveals was hanging out, and doing business, with the Aryan Nations. The deaths resulting from that standoff (Weaver’s wife and 14-year-old son; a Federal Marshall) further stoked the racist right’s belief that the government was out to get them. They then became convinced of that fact after 1993’s fiery calamity in Waco, Texas, where David Koresh forced a showdown with federal authorities and then, to fulfill his own prophesies of “apocalypse,” had his minions set fire to their Branch Davidian compound, resulting in 76 deaths, including all 25 of Koresh’s own children (by multiple young wives).

Via interviews with writers and law enforcement agents, as well as stunning surveillance footage from inside remote white-supremacist strongholds in Idaho and Waco, Oklahoma City debunks the moronic conspiracy theories surrounding these calamities. Its wealth of facts, testimonials and anecdotes definitively illustrate that such hostile incidents (and the fatalities that resulted from them) were caused by likeminded anti-government extremists who were obsessed with guns and terrified of anti-white persecution.

Such was the rotten primordial stew out of which Timothy McVeigh crawled, a scrawny, oft-bullied kid and admitted “gun enthusiast” who joined the military so he could get his hands on all the weapons and ammo he wanted. Disillusioned by his Gulf War tour of duty, and then frustrated by his failure to join the Army Rangers – and, afterwards, to get a job, or meet a nice girl, or make anything of his go-nowhere life – he found an outlet for his anger on an odyssey through Western America, where he visited with skinhead groups, stopped at the Branch Davidians’ Waco site, and became a fixture at gun shows where white nationalist ideology was free to flourish.

Furious over the events of Ruby Ridge and Waco (and the Brady Bill), McVeigh set himself on a course of revenge, enlisting two accomplices (Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier) on a mission that would end in horror in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma City spends considerable time on McVeigh’s methodical preparations for, and execution of, that plan, thereby conclusively proving that not only was he the mastermind behind the bombing – “The truth is, it was just me,” he admits in a prison audio recording – but that he also had no qualms about the innocent lives that would be lost. As he himself says, “From a military perspective, to get a message across, you need to hurt them where they hurt the most. The only way they’re going to feel something, and the only way they’re going to get the message, is with a body count.”

And on that score, how did he ultimately feel he’d done? “In the crudest terms: 168 to 1.”

Oklahoma City ends with McVeigh’s lethal-injection federal execution on June 11, 2011. It was a fitting end to a hateful individual – and one that, it’s suggested, he wanted, so that he could be a martyr for a forthcoming revolution. In a brief, unconvincing final note, the film does its best to contend that McVeigh failed in that quest. Yet between its own textual coda, which notes that over 500 militant white-supremacist organizations operate in the U.S. today, and the incoming administration’s deep ties to the “alt-right” movement (be it Breitbart editor Steve Bannon or Infowars’ Alex Jones), Goodman’s gripping documentary ultimately comes across as a history lesson with all-too-relevant insights to impart – and warnings to scream – about our forthcoming Trumpian America.