OKLAHOMA DIARY: Heartsick in the Heartland

OKLAHOMA DIARY: Heartsick in the Heartland

by Andrea Peyser

It took only minutes from the time some unseen hand blew a hole in the heart of this nation – killing nearly 200 children, women, and men while traumatizing an entire society – before the culprit was identified. Surely, the commentators soothed, this dastardly act was the work of Arab terrorists, or some other foreigner armed with a grudge and backed by a god who knows no respect for human life. Even as the Oklahoma City skyline continued to fill with black smoke and the lucky living were dug from the rubble, bloodied and shaking, we comforted ourselves with what seemed the undeniable truth: Such a beastly act of terrorism, virtually unknown in this land, must have been inflicted upon us by forces from afar.

Looking back, perhaps we accepted this theory so readily because it was what we needed to believe. The dead had yet to be counted and already we had not only a suspect to the most hideous atrocity ever committed upon American soil, but a sure-fire method for preventing it from happening again. Close the borders! Shut the doors and throw up barricades. Toss out your troublemakers with foreign-sounding names. Then, we told ourselves with anxious certainty, we will be safe.

But something gnawed at the edges of my mind on the afternoon of April 19 as I boarded a flight from New York, where I work as a columnist for the New York Post, en route to the panic in Oklahoma City. Two years earlier, I’d covered the bombing of the World Trade Center, in which Middle-Eastern terrorists, whipped up by the vicious rhetoric of an Arab sheik, killed six people in downtown Manhattan. As my plane zoomed toward the Heartland, it was not that crime and its seemingly obvious parallels to the federal building bombing that haunted my thoughts.

Instead, I reflected back on a little novel I had read while toiling as a reporter in Tampa, Florida. The Turner Diaries is a fictional account of the day, some time in the near future, when white supremacists overthrow the American government, enslave or imprison all Jews and people of color, and establish a world order in which gun ownership and the conception of healthy white infants are not only encouraged, but a virtually required means to win full citizenship. This work is not meant to be a blueprint of a nightmare. In fact, members of certain right-wing groups around the country – those we have come to know as citizens’ militias – consider the Diaries their bible. The path to a glorious future.

In the book, the revolution against the system begins when combatants stockpile guns and explosives and embark on a bloody reign of domestic terror. And guess what they choose as an opening strike – a hit so ghastly it throws the nation into panic? You may have guessed it already.

The combatants bomb a federal building.

“Today, it finally begins,” says the books lead paragraph.

“After all these years of talking – and nothing but talking – we have finally taken our first action. We are at war with the system, and it is no longer a war of words.”

The Turner Diaries, as it turns out, was a favorite book of Timothy McVeigh.

Driving from the Oklahoma City airport to the federal building downtown, I flipped a news station on the car’s radio. Almost immediately, a male caller complained to the host: “While it is terrible that those babies were killed in the federal building, there’s something I can’t understand. Each year, two million babies are murdered through abortion and nobody says anything. Now this happens – and I’m certainly not condoning it – but everyone acts like it’s the worst thing in the world. Why is that, when every day babies are being murdered in this country?”

I’d like to report that the radio host hung up on this asshole after issuing a few choice words. But he didn’t. Instead, the host answered: “I agree with you.”

A few minutes after touching down in Oklahoma, and already I’d experienced one of the most depressing exchanges I could imagine. To compare abortion – a legal procedure whose existence is favored by a majority of Americans – with the federal building mass murder should strike reasonable people as a cynical use of tragedy to further political ends. But the offensive statement and the host’s enthusiastic agreement revealed something scary. The logic apparently employed by the bomber has deep roots in modern American society.

We didn’t know it yet, but the fiend who blew up that building and his ilk had very little in common with foreign terrorists and their religious beliefs, except perhaps for their mutual thirst for blood. This particular brand of violence was homegrown. And clues to the mindset from which these maniacs drew justification were found not in the Koran, but in certain interpretations of the Christian Bible. Now I view that call-in show as a clue of what was to come. Several days would pass before authorities would charge Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran who hated taxes and Janet Reno, with the federal building bombing. But the mind of the killer was already being mapped out for everyone in earshot, right there on the radio.

What was the caller really saying? With a few words, he had managed to minimize the horror of the butchery of babies in a day-care center and of men and women being blown to pieces in the workplace by asserting that the death count was relatively low. In just a few days, we’d learn that McVeigh planned his blood orgy in Oklahoma as retaliation for the raid at Branch Davidian headquarters in Waco,Texas, orchestrated by federal agents under orders from Attorney General Reno. In that raid, children, men, and woman were burned to death, presumably in a suicide bid.

In McVeigh’s mind, one bloodbath justified another. Minimized another. Never mind that his victims were guilty of nothing except being in the wrong building at the wrong time. The logic was as airtight as it was sick. And I had to ask myself: Where is all this American rage coming from? I thought of The Turner Diaries and its nifty solution to the American anger problem – that is, blowing up stuff and taking over the place. I thought of the radio program in which the caller suggested that the existence of abortion lessened the sting of cold-blooded murder. And it occurred to me that I’d heard that kind of rhetoric somewhere before. It was at an anti-abortion offensive staged in Buffalo, New York, a few years ago.

The protesters, mostly white and underemployed, had more in common than a distaste for abortion. Most of the people I encountered at the Buffalo offensive shared a dissatisfaction with a system they felt left them behind. Insecure, alienated, they were looking for answers. Sensing opportunity, a group of blow-dried preachers descended on Buffalo like charismatic, religious rock stars. The modern world, preachers told wide audiences, is a hostile place in which liberated women, minorities, and the government all conspire to keep them down. Under siege by these powerful forces, what is an honest, God-fearing American supposed to do? Put that way, the bombing of clinics, the murder of doctors, patients, and receptionists, becomes an act of self-defense.

The links between militant anti-abortionists and paranoid militia-types like McVeigh are deep. Shortly after Buffalo, I came across a manual that was widely circulated throughout the ranks of militant anti-abortion groups. The manual provides instructions for developing citizens’ militias – cells of heavily armed and trained regular folks. The militias, the manual insisted, were to be created only for “self-defense” – revealing the paranoid assumption widely held in certain circles that the American government is preparing to wage war on the citizenry. Among the many tools the system uses to keep the white populace down, according to the manual, is the abortion of white fetuses.

It should come as no surprise that a fringe character, a man | who found support among the blow-dried preachers and I radical rhetoric, murdered an abortion doctor in Pensacola, 1 Florida. The reaction to the killing was just as foreseeable. As i you might have expected, the anti-abortion groups that whipped the killer to violence quickly distanced themselves. He’d done their dirty work and he was disowned.

Timothy McVeigh, the poster boy of the militia movements, was also spurned by the very forces that influenced his thinking, So much for camaraderie in the battle against the system.

The carnage in Oklahoma City was unimaginable. And not all of the damage was of the physical type. As darkness cloaked the land on the evening of April 19, a light drizzle began to fall. It was then that I arrived on Main Street, U.S.A.

Shards of plate glass, windows broken by the bomb blast, littered the streets. People, heads uncovered despite the dampness, roamed the sidewalks, listless, like zombies. Seemingly unaware of where they were going. Nearly oblivious to where they were.

On the pavement, a column of fatigue-clad soldiers roamed among the storefronts and office buildings, rifles at the ready. Armored cars camped outside an auto parts shop. There was talk of curfews and martial law. It looked as if the country was at war.

Above our heads, illuminated by spotlights, was the hulking wreckage of the federal building. In the coming days, its persistent image on television would lose some of its sting. But in person, the nine-story building, looking as if a monstrous claw had swiped off its front, could provoke tears until the day it was flattened by explosives.

As a journalist, it was my job to make some kind of sense of all this – or at least, to bring postcards of a nightmare back home to New York. In retrospect, the warmth with which some of the people of Oklahoma treated me was astonishing.

I will never forget Cathy McCaskell, who lost her 41-year- old sister, Terry Chumard. I thought Terry’s disappearance made for a good story. Married about a year to a co-worker she’d met at the office of Housing and Urban Development, Terry was working on one side of the building’s seventh floor when the bomb went off; her husband, Robert, was on the opposite side. Robert was completely unharmed in the explosion. But where his beloved wife’s desk had sat just minutes earlier, Robert Chumard found only a hole.

For much of the first week following the bombing, I kept in touch with Cathy as she roamed the streets and hospitals, searching for Terry. For days, I witnessed her on an emotional roller-coaster, recording every sob, like a good reporter.

After a while, I made myself sick. I was a voyeur, dispatched to seek out misery. To squeeze tears out of subjects. What did I know about these people’s suffering?

Eventually, Terry’s body was found and I went to see Cathy again, to record her sorrow. And then Cathy shocked me with two little words. “Thank you,” she said. Thank me?

“Most reporters ask me, ‘How old is she?'” Cathy explained bitterly. “I say 41, and they stop writing.”

“Then, they always ask, ‘Did she have any kids?’ I say no. They just say, ‘OK, good luck.'” At this point, Cathy’s voice cracked.

“She’s a person and there were a lot of people who loved her. Sure, I love kids. But everyone in that building counted. She was my sister and I wasn’t ready to let her go.”

Then she focused on me. “I just want to thank you for taking such an interest in us. It means so much to me.”

It was a hard thing to hear. I had traveled far to give dispassionate reports on others’ suffering. But for the first time in my career, I found it impossible to hide behind a notebook. I knew these people. The dead were like friends.

Later that day at the blast site, I interviewed a police chaplain with a kind face about the firefighters and families he’d counseled. After a few minutes, he asked, “Who have you talked to?”

I started ticking off a list of officials and families, but the man cut me off. “No, I mean, do you have anyone to help you through this?”

Was I really so transparent? I had started hating the killer with a vengeance.

The counter-assault on hate groups began almost as if on cue. President Clinton got into the act, suggesting that hate radio was bad for the country’s health. At issue were people like G. Gordon Liddy, who raised a ruckus when he advised citizens to shoot federal agents “in the groin” if any should happen to storm your house. Liddy’s show was quickly yanked from the air.

Soon, a national tragedy was reduced to a debate on free speech. Sensible people were led to believe that the best way to combat violence was to sanitize the airwaves. The second wave of assault had begun. And it was on the media.

It was another predictable reaction to madness. And one with which I will never agree. Shoot the messenger, said the commentators, and watch your problems disappear. Censorship. I cringed as well-meaning people advocated taking the first steps toward a police state. Were the paranoid fantasies of the militias coming true?

I have a better solution to the problem: More speech, not less. Do hate groups, with their verbal venom, stir up the Tim McVeighs of this world? You bet. Shut them up? Absurd. And dangerous.

Censorship not only is abhorrent to our way of living, it doesn’t work. Shutting down avenues of expression only increases alienation. Besides, when you start stifling the rights of one group, who’s next?

We need to expose the militias for what they are – a bunch of scared cowards who would defend the slaying of babies as a means of taking control. Who would justify the murder of a receptionist as a means of fighting abortion. Infiltrate them? Yes. Take away their weapons? Sure. Silence them? Do that, and you pay the consequences.

I would propose that The Turner Diaries become required reading for all. Study it. Discuss it. Understand it. Then reject it. The best way to defeat the enemy is to know his mind.

View Original Presentation of the article in PDF form

Andrea Peyser is a columnist for the New York Post. She is the author of Celebutards.