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One Crucial Lesson to Add to Rachel Maddow's TV Special on Timothy McVeigh

"The McVeigh Tapes" warns that we ignore our own recent history of domestic terrorism "at our peril." But do we ignore our government's history of violence at even greater peril?
 
 
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Rachel Maddow's MSNBC documentary, The McVeigh Tapes: The Confessions of an American Terrorist, which was broadcast multiple times last week to mark the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, offered not only an historic investigation but a cautionary tale. Militias and right-wing extremist groups are on the rise, both the Department of Homeland Security and the Southern Poverty Law Center report, and each week the discourse and decorum of professional hate-mongers at the right wing of media, government, and advocacy organizations reach new lows. The documentary, a level-headed examination of both the perpetrator and the victims of the largest act of terrorism ever inflicted by an American citizen on American citizens, could not be more timely, coming only weeks after the arrest of a Michigan-based militia group allegedly plotting against government agents and coinciding with much publicized march on Washington by gun rights groups. "We ignore this, our own very recent history of anti-government violence and the dangers of domestic terrorism, at our peril," Maddow warned in an ad for her show. But there's another equally important lesson to be learned from the McVeigh story: we ignore our government's recent history of violence, both abroad and at home, at the greatest peril.

Before the Wars

Much has been made of McVeigh's early involvement in guns, which his grandfather Ed McVeigh launched when Tim was 14, with the gift of a .22 caliber rifle. Pendleton, NY, McVeigh's rural hometown outside Buffalo, was a community that hunted for food, a more moral and humane practice than buying industrially raised and slaughtered meat, McVeigh would later argue in a letter to a local paper. And much has been made of McVeigh's early interest in survivalism, another practice founded in a harsh upstate realities. When McVeigh was nine, a blizzard crippled Buffalo; cars got buried and people froze to death. Like many other families, the McVeighs ran out of basic supplies, which led to the family practice of stockpiling water and food. The Buffalo in which Timothy McVeigh came of age was suffering brutal economic conditions as well. Banks and factories closed or contracted, collapsing local businesses and real estate. The large radiator plant that had provided two generations of McVeighs (UAW members and Democrats) with secure, if wearying, work stopped hiring. After high school and an uninspiring year at a local technical college, McVeigh moved in and out of dead-end jobs, filling his time with his hobbies of guns, computers, and survivalism, but his frustration mounted. He wanted work and a life, and soon McVeigh made the choice than many young people with limited means and prospects made in the late eighties: he joined the military.

The Army

By all accounts, McVeigh found himself in the Army, which he joined in May 1988, a month after his 20th birthday. As a soldier, his teenage interest in machinery and guns could flourish and his early survivalism could morph into a disciplined military lifestyle. To a fellow soldier interviewed by journalists Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck for their book, American Terrorist -- Maddow's documentary, in which they both appear, is based on their tapes -- McVeigh was "the epitome of infantry." But the histrionic rituals of violence and killing turned him off, McVeigh told Michel and Herbeck: "Twenty times a day, it would be, 'Blood makes the grass grow! Kill! Kill! Kill!' You would be screaming that until your throat was raw. … If somebody put a video camera on that, they would think it was a bunch of sickos." Disciplined, talented, and highly intelligent, McVeigh finished basic training with the highest grades and an unmatched score of 1,000 out of 1,000 points in marksmanship. To his delight, the Army invited him to apply for the Special Forces, a perfect match for his interest and skills, but before he could try out he was shipped to the Gulf, to wait for the looming war.

Desert Storm

His first day in the 100-hour ground war, following orders, McVeigh shot an Iraqi soldier manning a machine gun over a mile away, Michel and Herbeck report. The sight of red mist replacing the soldier's head in his viewfinder disturbed McVeigh, and he discharged the rest of his round in the sand. Ten years later in his famous 60 Minutes interview with Ed Bradley, he would recall his thoughts at the time: "What right did I have to come over to his country and kill him? … How did he ever transgress against me?" Later, on the highway from Kuwait to Iraq (come to be known as the "Highway of Death" for the thousands that U.S. Forces corralled and massacred on the road, the night of Feb 26, 1991), he was ordered to kill surrendering Iraqi soldiers, which we don't know if he did or not, though we know he was deeply affected. He told Bradley he had gone to the Gulf thinking, "Saddam is evil, all Iraqis are evil." But now it was "an entirely different ballgame … face to face … you realize they`re just people like you." Later, McVeigh would say that the US.'s continued campaign against Iraq in embargoes and bombings was hypocritical, since the U.S. led the world in "stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction."

The much decorated soldier (he won a Bronze Star and the Combat Infantry Badge) returned to Fort Riley trying to pick up where he had left off, preparing for the Green Berets. But most of the infantry's time in the desert was spent waiting for war, with little activity and training, and McVeigh like most came back out of shape physically and emotionally. The Special Forces allows each invitee a single try-out, and after two days, his feet blistered and his back aching, McVeigh was out, his dreams up in smoke. At the end of 1991, defeated and demoralized, he left the U.S. Army. But, in his mind, he remained a soldier.

Post-War and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Timothy McVeigh came back from the Gulf "broken," his aunt would later tell the New York Times. "He said it was terrible there. He was on the front line and had seen death and caused death." The happy and joking kid that had joined up was now a depressed young man, his father reported to Michel and Herbeck. He began to gamble compulsively, covering his debts for the losing Buffalo Bills with credit card loans, which he maxed out and couldn't pay back. Even if had been able to find a decent job, it's doubtful he could have held onto it. He told Michel and Herbeck that he suffered a "nervous breakdown" and "PTSD." His behavior became strange: In the middle of a freezing upstate New York winter, he traveled around wearing only sweatpants, his grandfather would report. He spent hours writing angry letters to the local Lockport Union Sun & Journal: "The 'American Dream' of the middle class has all but disappeared, substituted with people struggling to just buy next week's groceries. Heaven forbid the car breaks down." In a later letter to the editor, he wrote, "At a point when the world has seen communism falter as an imperfect system to manage people, democracy seems heading down the same road. No one is seeing the 'big picture' … America is in decline. … Maybe we have to combine ideologies to achieve the perfect utopian government. Remember, government-sponsored health care was a communist idea. Should only the rich be allowed to live longer?" His angry letters were not limited to newspapers. When the government wrote demanding over a thousand dollars in alleged military overpay, he wrote them back saying, "Go ahead, take everything I own; take my dignity. Feel good as you grow fat and rich at my expense; sucking my tax dollars and property."

And then in August 1992 the government's attack of a survivalist family in northern Idaho, which left a mother, her teenage son, and the family dog dead, further shook McVeigh. It would take years for government reviews, from congressional hearings to federal trials, to confirm what McVeigh immediately suspected about the siege of Randy Weaver's cabin in Ruby Ridge: the government had concocted a case against the eccentric but harmless Weaver, which ended in murders and and a cover-up. Soon after the massacre, McVeigh sold everything that would not fit in his car and took to the road, searching, he told his sister, for a "free state" in which to live.

Another Massacre and Another War

For the next year, Timothy McVeigh lived in and out of his car, crossing the country several times. Consumed by the vision of the government invading citizens' homes and confiscating their weapons, he began visiting gun shows and hanging out with Army buddies Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier, both guns enthusiasts. A few months after the Ruby Ridge debacle, federal agents engaged in a standoff at a Christian cult compound in Waco, Texas where women and children were allegedly being abused by cult leader, David Koresh. When after a 51 day stand-off, the government stormed the buildings with gas and guns, then burned and bulldozed what remained, leaving some 80 men, women, and children dead, McVeigh watched the event on television and "weeped," he told Michel and Herbeck, and then was consumed by rage. For the next two years, he planned and prepared for his counter-attack, gathering supplies, building his bombs, and selecting his battle site. On April 19, 1995, exactly two years after Branch Davidian massacre, McVeigh executed his plan. Detonating a bomb in a rental truck he'd parked outside a federal building in Oklahoma City, he killed 168 men, women, and children dead and injured 500,

Fifteen years after the Oklahoma City bombing, Americans are still astonished that McVeigh never said he was sorry, a sign, according to many commentators, survivors, and victims' families that the bomber was an inhuman sociopath, cold-bloodedly cruel and indifferent to suffering. The taped voice in the Maddow documentary is matter-of-fact and flat, rarely rising or falling, even when it boast or laments. Dr. Paul Heath, who worked as a counselor in the VA office in the Murrah Building at the time of the bombing, met McVeigh the day before the bombing when he appeared at the office, pretending to be looking for a job; Heath recently told Newseek that McVeigh seemed "delusional," and that he suspected he had PTSD. McVeigh insists in the tapes that he was a soldier from beginning to end, approaching and leaving the scene of battle in total control. (He did not run from Murrah but jogged as per "military training," he says.) In the tapes he speaks of his PTSD and breakdown in the year after his return from the Gulf. When exactly did his conditions abate, rendering him in total control? When he decided to live in his car? When he drove around the country from gun show to gun show? When he traveled to Ruby Ridge to inspect bullet-holes, or camped outside Waco during the stand-off? In cars and trucks, driving or walking, jogging or running, McVeigh carried with him a war-wrecked mind, a dark, narrow trench surrounded by violence, unable to imagine any future for itself -- or others -- besides death.

According to Dr. William E. Baumzweiger, a California psychiatrist with expertise in psychiatric ailments of Gulf War veterans, "a small but significant number of Gulf War veterans become homicidal" seemingly "out of nowhere." The brain scans of veterans with Gulf War illness are distinctly abnormal, according to Dr. Robert Haley, the University of Texas epidimiologist and preeminent researcher of Gulf War Illness. John Allen Muhammad, the Beltway sniper also went to the Gulf War "happy," "focused, and "intelligent, "returning home "depressed," "totally confused," and "violent," according to a recently published memoir by his second wife, Mildred Allen. Muhammad's appeals lawyers stressed that his "severe mental illness" never came up at trial, where he was allowed to represent himself despite obvious mental incompetence. (He maintained his innocence until the end, claiming that at the time of the killing spree he was in Germany for dental work.) In seeking clemency and a stay of execution, Muhammad's lawyers presented psychiatric reports diagnosing Schizophrenia and brain scans documenting profound malformations consistent with psychotic disease. Neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor Virginia Governor Tim Kaine were impressed. According to Governor Kaine, "crimes that are this horrible, you just can't understand."

We have no images of Timothy McVeigh's brain. We don't know what toxic damage it may have suffered from pills, injections, sprays, and gaseous plumes, or from the bombs and fires on the highway at the end of the war. Psychological trauma alone, neeruoscientist now tell us, affects not only psyches but brains. Sophisticated neuroimaging shows the brains of those who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to be abnormal in areas regulating memory retrieval and inhibition (hippocampus), fearfulness and focus (pre-frontal cortex), and emotionality and lability (amygdala). The hippocampus of Alzheimer's sufferers are also shrunken and the amygdala of bi-polar sufferers have enhanced activation similar to those with PTSD.

Whether from toxins or trauma or both, the sunny, joking Tim McVeigh that family and neighbors knew and loved never made it home. And a depressed and shaken 23-year-old returned to a town too broke and shaken itself to provide support or relief. When he took off, the closest thing to home McVeigh found was the dead-end family farm of his Army buddy Terry Nichols in the wastelands of rural Michigan. It was here that McVeigh planned his "counter-attack" on the government, for the war, Ruby Ridge, and for the "final straw" of Waco.

Michigan, the state with the highest unemployment both then and now is, not surprisingly, the state with the most militias, with family farms forced to borrow in order to compete continuing to collapse in foreclosure; with manufacturing moved abroad and auto and steel plants closing; with white supremacy and violence hawked as final solutions. Today hucksters Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Michelle Malkin, Michelle Bachmann, et al have joined the old regulars like Rush Limbaugh and David Savage at the booth, selling locals shots at targets with the promise of winning something for themselves. The professional haters make their fortunes praying on the fears of hard-up families, jobless youth, homeless veterans, and struggling seniors, warning against the government elites intent on stealing their health care, jobs, guns, food, and infants, and handing them over to immigrants, blacks, and stem-cell toting killers.

The last few months have been particularly frightening, as anti-government extremists spit on black congressmen, break windows and cut gas lines at healthcare-reformers' offices, hang the president in effigy yet again. Ignorance and fear are the best soil for growing hate and extremism. On the right, enemies of healthcare reform are often ignorant of the fact that their own healthcare is government supported. Americans blaming African-Americans and immigrants for taking their jobs are ignorant of the higher unemployment and poverty minorities suffer. On the left, enemies of guns too often ignore the importance of hunting to rural families, both culturally and financially. Big finance is entwined equally with the Democratic and Republican parties, and the social liberalism boasted by Wall Street firms never interferes with their plunder of the people and the planet. Indeed, the terms left and right need refreshing. "Right-wing" Ron Paul is among the most consistently anti-war and anti-corporate voices. The Christian anti-government right has its match of religious fanatics in high offices here and among our closest allies of all persuasions. The "bible" that Timothy McVeigh discovered in prison was Unintended Consequences by John Ross, a 1996 gun-rights novel interlaced with real figures and events. Among the examples of vicious state violence against citizens that Ross offers are not only the expected "right-wing" cause celebres like Ruby Ridge and Waco, but exempla of the liberal and even far left -- the 1932 Bonus Army March, the 1945 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the 1985 Philadelphia police massacre of the black survivalist MOVE group.

Timothy McVeigh said nothing at his trial until just before sentencing, when he quoted Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: "Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example."

Brandeis's other words in the same paragraph of his famous Olmstead dissent are worth repeating today: