Sunday, July 8, 2012

McVeigh Confronts His Public Image by Jody Lynee Madeira

In the years preceding his execution, not only was Timothy McVeigh a toxic presence in the bombing victim’s lives; they were also a devastating presence in his. Immediately after his arrest, victims criticized McVeigh’s unemotional and defiant persona, the protested the utter implausibility of his insistence that the Oklahoma City bombing was a military attack, with victims’ deaths constituting “collateral damage”. News media broadcast and built upon these remarks, formulating them into a formidable public representation of McVeigh that was, in his own view, malicious, even monstrous. McVeigh responded to the treatment he was given in the media with a slew of interviews and an authorized biography.

For McVeigh, the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City teemed with enemy non-combatants, and he, a patriotic warrior, would lead the attack that would vindicate the government’s deadly actions at Waco, Ruby Ridge and elsewhere. But family members, survivors and both the American and international public lived in an entirely different universe, one in which the Murrah Building was a place where ordinary Americans far removed from controversial events such as the massacre at Waco came to earn a living just like any other employees. McVeigh attempted to reconcile these two worlds and, indeed, even believed that it was possible to do so; a grave lesson in what can (and must) get lost in translation.

With his lawyer’s help, McVeigh was determined to show the public a friendly face. Above all, he wanted to be taken seriously, but a man made into a monster was likely to be seen as bestial, not rational so McVeigh was frustrated by media coverage awash in victims laments and felt it was important to salvage his mission and redeem his message before dying. What began as a statement of defiance became damage control. From his perp walk until his execution, McVeigh was engaged in a dialogue not only with his victims (particularly a handful with high media visibility) but also with the image of himself that the victims and others helped to create.

What the victims saw as a heinous instance of mass murder, McVeigh regarded as a military mission. He clearly saw himself as a soldier and analogized his reasons for the bombing to other U.S. military actions abroad. To McVeigh, the government actions at Waco and Ruby Ridge necessitated that he ‘go on the offensive' and his stoic soldierly mind-set allegedly accounted for his lack of remorse:

It’s a military act . . . . That’s the way I handle taking a human life... It’s like breaking the neck of a chicken. Look at the atom bomb at Hiroshima, 70,000 people were wiped off the map. To this day, the pilot of that plane says it was a dirty job, but he had to do it.

For McVeigh, then, the bombing was an act of war, and those who worked in the Murrah Building were “eligible combatants whether they’re on the front lines or not.” But family members, survivors, rescue workers, residents of Oklahoma, and the American public did not and could not see the Oklahoma City bombing in such martial terms. They could understand McVeigh’s righteous indignation over Waco and Ruby Ridge, but his decision to bomb the Murrah Building was riotous; being angry at the government was far different from taking innocent lives in retribution.

But McVeigh consistently objected to what he callously termed the “woe-is-me” crowd, objecting that their victimization was the same as that experienced by innocents harmed by U.S. attacks on foreign soil:

Those people, the victims, seem to elevate themselves into something special. They say that no one should have to go through this pot-traumatic grief that their whole city is going through. At the same time, we’re doing it to other nations all the time.”

He was frustrated by the depth and visibility of the victims grief, and he complained that victims were perpetually wallowing in their misery:

I had no hesitation to look right at them and listen to their story, but I’d like to say to them, I’ve heard your story many times before. The specific detail might be unique, but the truth is you are not the first mother to lose a kid, you’re not the first grandparent to lose a granddaughter or a grandson. I’ll use the phrase, and it sounds cold, but I’m sorry I’m going to use it because it’s the truth: get over it.

Family members and survivors could not understand McVeigh’s lack of remorse, and McVeigh was equally puzzled by their inability to do so. In an early interview McVeigh disclosed that he had received a letter from Kathy Wilburn, whose two grandsons he had murdered in the bombing. McVeigh appeared to be frustrated not by her anger but by her inability to understand why he did not show emotion for the murdered bombing victims:

People. I don’t know if they can understand or won’t understand, but when you see a picture of a pilot climbing out of is plane, coming back from a bombing mission, is he crying? If a cop shoots a perp, does he come home and cry? In these fields of fire rescue and law enforcement, you learn to suppress, to block out emotion. . . People grow accustomed to it. You ever see a person from a Third World country encounter a disaster? It’s like, OK, let’s pick up our shit and move somewhere else. You don’t see this weeping.

One news article from the Canadian Press quoted family member Jim Denny, whose two children were injured in the bombing, as saying that he did not understand McVeigh’s comparison between the Oklahoma bombing and the Gulf War. Enclosing the letter to a reporter, McVeigh noted in the margin: “I don’t want to be too harsh on JD, b/c I know emotion clouds reason and logic . . . I know what his kids went through (and are still going through), but what world is this guy living in?!?”

McVeigh’s overall attitude towards the majority of victims was inconsistent. At times, he derided, even mocked, their thoughts and feelings, yet on other occasions he claimed to feel “empathy” for them. McVeigh was clearly aware of how his behaviors impacted family members and survivors, noticing that when he “laughed at pretrial it bothered the victims.” He confirmed that his attitude at trial was at times defiant:

My attitude was, and is, carpe diem, seize the day, enjoy every day. I’m not going to go into that courtroom, curl into a fetal ball and cry, just because the victims wanted me to do that. I’ve already accepted my death, victims, you’re getting what you want, I’m getting what I want. . .

In one stunningly offensive remark, McVeigh analogized the Murrah Building employees to functionaries on the Death Star, the Galactic Empire’s space station and weapon made famous in the Star Wars movie:

The federal government is an army of people. They’re like storm troopers in Star Wars. Although they may be individually innocent, they’re part of the whole . . In the storm troopers analogy, they blow up the entire Death Star. In different scenes, you’d see different women sitting at the consoles in the Death Star, or you’d see storm troopers running around, not shooting at anybody. Guess what, they all get blown up in the Death Star and the audience was happy. As a whole, the Death Star represented the whole empire. Death Star, Murrah Building, they’re all working or the same cause...”

At the same time, McVeigh claimed he took no pleasure in what he did. He regretted that there was some collateral damage, that he did not know there would be customers in the offices of some of those agencies, like Social Security.

It really pissed me off that the prosecution presented that the day care center was easily visible. Mike Fortier and I were in the front of the building, that glass was black, just a sheen. You couldn’t see the kids in there . . . I recognized beforehand that someone might be walking down the road with heir kid or bringing their kid to work. However, it it was known there was an entire day care center there, it might have caused me to switch target and that might have made a difference. That’s a large amount of collateral damage. That issue really irked me; it was terrible that there were children in the building.

McVeigh knew that, in order for his ideological messages to be credible, it was most important to convey that he was not mentally ill. Early on, He disclosed to reporters the results of his psychological examinations in prison:

I was seen repeatedly by 3 defense shrinks (to psycho, 1 psychia.) pre-trial. I got along great with two; the 3rd grew frustrated b/c his job was to formulate a possible ‘mental defect’ mitigation – and he couldn’t find any basis for such. None of these 3 professionals, when everything was explained, found anything wrong with me.

He vehemently denied he was a sociopath, pointing to his ‘sensitive’(yet private) side,” and contended that “if I am sociopathic, still, I am only a reflection of the average American.” As if to offer the ultimate proof that he was rational and sane, McVeigh described his experiences in late 1992 with what he referred to as “delayed PTSD.” Although he termed PTSD ‘a misnomer,” he remarked that “As long as I was busy with something, it didn’t seem to affect me . . . However, whenever life became boring, I would start to ‘slip’ (feel upset at everything, super-restless, etc.).” He attributed the condition to his Gulf War service and characterized it as isolating:

Now that you’ve seen the extremes, experienced the ultimate highs, lows and realities – well, who gives a shit about conversations about the weather. . . the daily grind, all of a sudden, has gotten much more intolerable . . . you separate yourself from these encounters, and this from the people, to escape these conversations.

McVeigh was resentful that the media appeared to credit rescue workers’ PTSD accounts but not his own:

What’s funny is how these articles about victims and rescue workers are all sympathy, with experts weighing in, etc. - but how no such consideration was given me or my life . . . the way I look at it, either hand out the sympathy equally, or hand out none at all!

Yet, in describing the bombing conspiracy itself, McVeigh was profoundly angered by insinuations that he was not its mastermind:

Show me where I needed anybody else – financing?, Logistics?, Specialized tech. skills? Brain-power? Strategy? Or, old fashioned ‘means, motive, opportunity ‘test? Show me where I needed a dark and mysterious ‘Mr. X’!!

He repeatedly emphasized that he was calm and collected, even after the bomb detonated, that he “never lost composure” was “never hyped-up, always in control,” and even walked “calmly” to his getaway car.

In his letters McVeigh tried to showcase his thoughts and motivations so that others could appreciate the complexity of his intellect:

I’m trying to show you that my opinions are not just ‘jumping to unsupported conclusions, but that my opinions are formed over years of diligent observation and educated conclusions. . .One thing that separates me from the 5-minute attention span masses is that I remember what I’ve read in the past – I have it all stored away and made available for reference and cross-reference at any time.

McVeigh was very self-conscious about his communications and often reminded journalists that he was forsaking eloquence for efficiency. McVeigh was concerned about what would happen to his correspondence after his execution: “I hate to think what the likes of some reporters would do . . . I didn’t exactly pick up a dictionary or consult punctuation rules when I am writing an informal personal letter.” Bacharach found McVeigh’s self-concern and self-scrutiny interesting: “I was struck that he would care that people might pick apart his writing ability . . . someone who kills 168 people . . . he’s concerned they’re going to make fun of his punctuation.”

Killing McVeigh; The Death Penalty and the Myth of Closure by Jody Lynee Madeira; New York University Press, 2012

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