What Law Enforcement Missed: New Book Explains Why We Need to Revisit the Oklahoma City Bombing
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“Oklahoma City” compiles a hefty collection of those unplumbed leads, some of it gleaned from newly released files and a jailhouse interview with Nichols that, they report, went into “great detail.” Given the milieus McVeigh and Nichols frequented, there are enough freak-show touches to keep an FX drama stocked for three seasons: a double-wide trailer full of snakes, a neo-Nazi with a secret life as a cross-dresser, a hot blonde with a swastika tattoo who agreed to act as an informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and so on. The authors refrain from milking this material for all its lurid charm, but somehow their deadpan delivery only makes it more grotesque.
They have excellent reasons for not treating this pack of alienated misfits as merely contemptible. As Gumbel and Rogers point out, McVeigh and many of his pals were veterans whose Gulf War battlefield experience left them with both military skills and emotional damage. “It is not difficult to see,” they write, “how new McVeighs could emerge from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the lingering devastation of the 2008 economic meltdown and the anti-establishment rage embodied by everyone from the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street to the violent racists threatening to put a bullet in the brain of America’s first black president.”
The book does suffer a bit from its authors’ submersion in the story. The narrative thread — so necessary for readers whose memories of the attack and investigation have faded — occasionally gets lost as they jump around chronologically to demonstrate the shakiness of some points in the government’s version of the story. Still, it’s shocking to learn that over two dozen eyewitnesses reported having seen McVeigh with at least one other person on the morning of the bombing, contradicting the prosecution’s assertion that he acted alone on that day. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, but that’s a lot of people, and the ones the authors describe in detail had direct, highly memorable encounters with the bomber(s).
Perhaps the most persuasive aspect of “Oklahoma City” is its refusal of paranoia. The typical crackpot conspiracy theory relies on a masterly, Luciferian characterization of the conspirators, who are invariably depicted as puppet masters capable of pulling off elaborate illusions, feints and coverups without a hitch. As Gumbel and Rogers tell it, the bombing investigation fell short of discovering the truth because of sloppiness, failure of will, self-serving intra-office politics and, above all, idiotic and obstructive turf wars among law enforcement agencies. Now, that sounds more like the government that left us vulnerable six years later and that may well let us down again.
Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.