Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing
Before examining Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing, it will be useful to briefly recap the key elements of the militia movement, because as will be seen, Timothy McVeigh is a prime example of the path individuals can take from participating in larger militia organizations to perpetrating actual acts of terrorism. First, militia groups are motivated by an anti-government ideology that perceives itself as representing the true or legitimate interpretation of the United States Constitution, and as such are aligned against the federal government directly. Secondly, they are organized according to military-style hierarchies, and have an inclination towards stockpiling weapons and ammunition. Finally, they view any perceived government encroachment on the right to bear arms as a violation worthy of violent retribution. All of these elements played a key role in McVeigh’s radicalization and ultimate decision to bomb the Oklahoma City Federal Building.
Timothy McVeigh began the journey that would eventually lead to Oklahoma City in 1988, when he entered the United States Army, eventually going on to win a Bronze Star in the first Iraq War (Kraska, 1998, p. 577). However, it seems reasonable to presume that his anti-government sentiment was at least already forming while he was in the military, because almost immediately after being discharged from the Army in 1992 he made his anti-government views known to practically anyone around him (Kraska, 1998, p. 580). He began traveling around the country, and through his contact with fellow former servicemen; he eventually became associated with various militia movements and the so-called Patriot movement, a loose organization of various anti-government groups (U.S. DOJ, 2011). However, although McVeigh expressed his anti-government views well before the attack in Oklahoma, it was not until the 1993 government action against the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas that the speed of his radicalization increased exponentially.
The Branch Davidians were an extremist splinter group of the Seventh Day Adventist wing of Christianity, led by David Koresh, a self-professed prophet. The group owned a ranch near Waco, Texas, and had been stockpiling weapons for some time. When agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms attempted to execute a search warrant, a shootout ensued, leading to a fifty-one day standoff that culminated in a siege that set fire to compound and resulted in the deaths of all seventy-five people inside. While much debate can be made about the suitability of the tactics employed by negotiation and law enforcement personnel, one thing was certain; the siege of the Branch Davidian compound “confirmed irrefutably the extreme right’s worst fears: an abrogation of religious and gun-ownership freedoms enforced by a fully militarized federal police” (Kraska, 1998, p. 580). Coupled with the deadly 1992 siege in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, the incident in Waco resulted in widespread growth among the militia movement, as its predictions about a federal takeover seemingly began to come true.
The government action against the Branch Davidians impacted McVeigh especially hard, and he later admitted that the incident in Waco was one of the most important motivators for the attack in Oklahoma. Modeled in part on extremist literature popular within the militia movement, McVeigh justified his bombing by viewing it as revenge for Waco and the first step in taking down a government that was in his view illegitimate. In an explicit reference to the extremist science fiction novel The Turner Diaries, McVeigh planned his attack, which featured a fertilizer bomb parked in a truck outside the Federal Building, for the second anniversary of the Waco siege (the protagonist in The Turner Diaries detonates a fertilizer bomb outside an FBI building on the second anniversary of government “gun raids”) (Kraska, 1998, p. 580). The fact that McVeigh was inspired by the literature and ideology of the militia movement is crucial to note, because it demonstrates how the ideology of the larger movement can inspire actual terrorist action, even if the larger organization has no part in the coordination or planning.
In fact, McVeigh’s decision to bomb the Federal Building himself was born out of the feeling that “he was surrounded by right-wing ideologies who engaged in ‘talk’ about resistance to governmental tyranny” but did not take action. As the FBI notes in its discussion of the terrorist threat posed by lone actors, frequently individual perpetrators of terrorism have associated with more organized extremist groups in the past, but may have splintered off after feeling as if the group was not willing enough to engage in violent action (U.S. DOJ, 2011). McVeigh’s radicalization as a result of the government action in Waco, Texas, coupled with his immersion in the militia movement demonstrates what sociologists and social psychologists call a “threat/opportunity spiral,” in which perceived threats create opportunities fro reaction, which in turn precipitate more threats (McBreaty, 2008, p. 1626). The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms’ warrant was perceived as a threat by the Branch Davidians, who subsequently took the opportunity to engage in a dramatic and ultimately deadly reaction. In turn, the Branch Davidians’ stockpiling of weapons and refusal to submit to the warrant justified further government action, thus increasing the threat to the Branch Davidians and the perceived threat to the militia movement. As a result, McVeigh’s decision to attack the Federal Building represents the response to this perceived threat.
Upon his capture by the FBI, McVeigh did not deny the fact that he planted the bomb, but instead attempted to argue that his actions were a justified response to the perceived threat created by the U.S. government, and particularly the tactics and weapons demonstrated in Waco and Ruby Ridge (U.S. DOJ, 2012). He was found guilty of all counts and eventually executed via lethal injection, never once expressing any remorse or guilt for his actions. Instead, he viewed his execution as his final act of defiance, because, in a demonstration of the threat/opportunity spiral, he felt as if the decision to execute him was a stark demonstration of everything he criticized the American government for (Kraska, 1998, p. 580). In a sense, he viewed himself as living out the Thomas Jefferson quote featured on the t-shirt he wore on the day of the bombing: “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time by the blood of tyrants and patriots” (Kraska, 1998, p. 580). Without a doubt, McVeigh viewed himself as the patriot, giving his blood for the United States.
However, in order to effectively combat the threat of domestic terrorism, it is necessary to be clear and honest about potential organizations or individuals that could encourage or perpetrate terrorist acts, and based on the evidence provided by the case of Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing, it seems undeniable that the militia movement must at the least be considered potent potential terrorist organizations, because they provide the ideological, social, and logistical support necessary for the radicalization of individuals into extremist, anti-government groups and ideologies. While not all members of militia groups or subscribers to extremist literature will end up planning or perpetrating acts of domestic terrorism, the fact remains that these groups provide the ideological inspiration for those individuals who do, and as such must regarded with the same kind of careful eye as any other extremist ideology. If there is anything to learn from the case of Timothy McVeigh, it is that extremist ideology is far more powerful, and has far more wide-ranging effects, than any particular group or organization.
Nidal Malik Hassan and the Fort Hood Shooting
On November 5, 2009 at Fort Hood, a military base close to the city of Killeen Texas, a US Army major and psychiatrist opened fire on the people. Thirteen people were murdered and thirty-two other people were injured (Kenber 2013). One of the victims was pregnant and the baby was lost when she died, so some put the figure of murder victims at fourteen. Nidal Malik Hasan has since been convicted of those shootings and has been sentenced to death by a military court. Hasan has never denied being the killer, nor has he wavered in the explanation of his motives behind the actions. He has stated repeatedly that he is a Muslim and that the United States is at war with Islam. His actions, he claims, are a direct result of his Muslim extremism. Hasan was due to be shipped to Afghanistan where he would have had to fight against terrorists, people with whom he chose to identify. Since this was an intolerable option to him, he chose to attack Americans instead. This was not a spur of the moment decision, but premeditated murders, which were planned out far ahead of their commission. Many people, including the family members of his victims, have requested that the case be classified as a terrorist attack instead of a mass shooting, but those in positions of authority in the matter have thus far not agreed to term the shooting in this way. According to the United States Defense Department, the Fort Hood massacre is a case of “workplace violence” (Jonsson 2013). Based on the information available, particularly the attitude of the perpetrator himself, it is clear that this should be considered an act of terrorism by a militant Islamist rather than a mass casualty shooting.
The purpose of a terrorist attack is rarely one of simple revenge or anger, but to convey a political message intended to alter the policies of the enemy government. Islamist terrorists have attacked the United States in the past for political reasons including the US support of Israel, the United States’ perceived imposition of western culture on Islamist nations, and for the United States’ efforts in combating international terrorism in other countries (Lieberman 2011). This is very different from a mass shooting as defined by state and federal criminal codes in the United States. According to those definitions, the acts of violence are numerous and within a specific time frame. They have a motive, which is usually based on desires for revenge or feelings of anger by the perpetrator. Mass shootings or episodes of workplace violence do not have a political motive. Acts of terror are “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct” (Definitions 2013). If the actions are politically based, as Hasan himself attests, then the government as acts of terrorism should classify the crimes at Fort Hood, Texas.
In October of 2012, Hasan sent letters to the Fox News television channel wherein he declared that he was renouncing his oaths of allegiance to the United States and renouncing his American citizenship because the laws of this country do not agree with the Islamic Shariah laws.
It has also been established that Hasan had ties to other extreme Islamists, most notably Anwar al-Awlaki with whom Hasan exchanged emails, which should have been a red flag to the Department of Homeland Security that there was a potential danger to the American citizenry, including training at a firing range and investigating jihad on computers located on the military base (Kenber 2013). Al-Awlkai was killed in a drone strike in 2011 while hiding in Yemen. Interactions with a known enemy of the United States should have alerted someone within the government. It was also found that Hasan had attended the same mosque as Nawaf al-Hazmi and Hani Hanjour, two of the men involved in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks (Hsu 2009). Had Hasan been investigated more thoroughly by the Department, it is likely that this tragedy could have been avoided, however since he was never identified as a potential terrorist threat, the government is now reluctant to label him as such. However, the official explanation for refusing to label the shooting an act of terror was that it would create an unfair bias against the accused during the trial (Crabtree 2012). It is probable that by relabeling Hasan’s action as a terrorist attack, the government would be more liable for the crime, giving a political motive for the refusal to reclassify the shooting as an act of domestic or international terror. Various parties, including the theory that the government is reluctant to label any acts of terror because of an attempt by the current regime to make people believe the United States is winning the War on Terror, have made speculation as to other political motives. Regardless of motive, it is evident that there is more than abundant evidence that Hasan is a militant Islamist and has been so for many years.
Despite the fact that the government has refused to classify the shooting as a terrorist attack, it is interesting to note that the military prosecutors used Hasan’s radical Islamism as a motive and stressed this part of the case in order to help secure the conviction. During their closing arguments, prosecutors declared that Hasan was a radicalized Muslim who was enraged by the American military presence abroad, particularly in the recent wars against Islamist terrorists. According to the prosecution, it was because of his radicalism and his identification of the United States as an enemy of Islam that he perpetrated his crime. Nidal Hasan did not object to this, but rather verified that this was indeed his motive. From the information available, it is clear that the reason Nidal Hasan attacked Fort Hood was his political ideology. He hoped that by killing Americans, he could enact revenge for radical Islamists killed by the American military and coerce the government into a different course of action regarding these groups. This motive shows Hasan to be a terrorist and the attack on Fort Hood an act of terrorism.