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The Force of Fear

A Decade After the Carnage In Oklahoma City, Washington Can Still Feel the Blast

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; Page C01

OKLAHOMA CITY

"It hasn't only affected O.K. . . . It's affected the U.S." So wrote elementary school kid Jim Shaw in the close aftermath of the disastrous bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building 10 years ago, on April 19, 1995.

Shaw's signed message, carefully printed on a ceramic tile, is one of hundreds that make up a low wall setting off the "Children's Area" from the rest of the elaborate memorial dedicated five years ago on the ground where the bombing took place. The schoolboy's words succinctly explain why it's called the Oklahoma City National Memorial.


Ten years after a bomb killed 168, a placid Oklahoma City National Memorial contrasts with the aftershock felt in Washington. (Ann E. Clark -- Copyright 2005 Oklahoma City National Memoria)

The particular message leapt out at me. Why? Because I've spent a portion of the last 10 years having much the same thought during walks on the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House -- a grim, lifeless and even scary place for much of that time.

My version of the thought, I must admit, has been tinged with resentment and anger. "Tim McVeigh, you dirtbag, you did this," I would mutter to myself, while surveying the unsettling mess left over after President Bill Clinton abruptly closed the avenue to vehicular traffic just a month after the distant bombing.

The heavy terrorist weapon of choice for Army marksman McVeigh, as we know only too well, was the truck bomb. The rental truck left standing on Fifth Street directly in front of the Murrah Building -- and directly under the second-floor America's Kids Child Development Center -- was filled with about 4,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate soaked in fuel and armed with commercial explosives and blasting caps.

Citing the explosive force of that Oklahoma City device as an example, the Secret Service was able to convince the president that busy Pennsylvania Avenue was way too close to the presidential mansion -- about 300 feet. Then, as now, the Service's preferred White House defensive setback is 800 feet, the approximate distance from the front facade to the northern edge of Lafayette Square.

So the uglification of the nation's capital in the name of security grew out of what McVeigh pulled off in Oklahoma City.

Some of the precautions being taken in the capital, it is true, seem aimed at threats other than truck bombs.

Still, make no mistake, it is the possibility of truck bomb attacks such as McVeigh's, and not other potential terrorist weapons, that is primarily responsible for the concrete barriers, construction fences and other stuff that today make Washington's monumental core so ugly and unfriendly.

The truck bomb threat is why members of the Commission of Fine Arts recently had to spend time arguing about an outrageous proposal to place steel bollards on the steps leading from the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial grounds. This singular threat is why the Jefferson Memorial remains cordoned by concrete. It's why the Washington Monument grounds are being reconstructed at great expense and inconvenience. It's why E Street south of the White House stays closed.

For good reason, then, Washington remains much on the mind during a visit to the actual scene of the crime on its 10th anniversary. The legitimate question -- are we in the capital perhaps over-responding? -- seems even more powerful and poignant at a distance.

Still, it's vastly different here. No concrete barriers surround the Oklahoma City memorial. (Though beginning on Sunday the area was surrounded by an impenetrable forest of media vans, prepping for this morning's ceremony and scheduled appearances by Vice President Cheney and former president Clinton.) More to the point, in this town when you find yourself muttering, "McVeigh, you did this," you are referring to actual, rather than symbolic, casualties. You are talking about 168 individuals killed. Eight hundred and fifty people injured. Nineteen children dead. Thirty children orphaned. You are talking about an entire city directly affected, as Jim Shaw said.

A visitor can learn some of the stories in a visit to the museum that opened in 2001, less than a year after the memorial was dedicated. The museum is appropriately housed in a corner of the Journal Record Building, itself heavily damaged by the explosion.

The stories are captivating and painful and, sometimes, miraculous. You learn, for example, of Florence Rogers, president of the Federal Employees Credit Union, who at 9 a.m. on April 19 a decade ago was beginning a weekly meeting with eight other people. When the blast occurred, Rogers remembered, the others "just disappeared," while the floor under her own desk somehow remained stable. The dress Rogers was wearing on that day, a pretty paisley print, is on display. It has a single tear in it.

Or you can try to absorb the excruciating trials of Daina Bradley, who, in order to be extracted from the rubble, had to have a leg amputated -- an operation that was interrupted twice by false bomb scares before being completed by a doctor wielding a penknife. Bradley survived, but her two children did not. Nor did her mother.

Simple artifacts are heart-rending (even without the music and other theatrical effects the exhibition designers use to pump us up). There is a stuffed doggy with a cowboy hat found in the wreckage, owner unknown. A little high-top shoe with embroidered flowers on it, belonging to Ashley Eckles, dead. A gold wristwatch with a pretty oval face that probably was being worn by Karen Gist Carr when she was discovered, dead, still seated at her desk. The crumpled planner that chronicled the daily life of HUD supervisor Terry Smith Rees, who was crushed to death in the collapse of the seventh floor.

A visit to the crime scene is thus profoundly (if predictably) disquieting. Some surcease is to be found in the memorial, designed by architects Hans and Torrey Butzer with Sven Berg in 1997.

This is true particularly at night when all is quiet except for the gentle spill of water over the edges of the black reflecting pool. The 168 empty chairs, glowingly lit from below, stand in orderly rows in a green field where the Murrah Building used to be. In this environment you can feel yourself breathe, and you can think, yes, life goes on.

Perhaps the most remarkable facets of the memorial are the two large bronze gates that frame it, east and west. On the east gate, boldly inscribed, are three figures: 9:01. From the west gate, 9:03 answers back. In between, then, is 9:02. It's absolutely spellbinding, this conflation of time and space, this void between two physical objects that tries to represent the impossible: Stopping time.

The literal interpretation, of course, is that the in-between space represents two minutes after 9 o'clock in the morning of a specific day 10 years ago. For McVeigh, the time was planned, more or less -- it was time enough for him to get away. For the folks in the Murrah Building and others nearby, it was the agonizing moment of incomprehension before death or dismemberment or miraculous survival.

So, death inhabits the void. There is no escaping what McVeigh, with his ideological pal Terry Nichols, did here. He killed and maimed innocent people. He did it out of a profound misreading of and contempt for the Constitution. By attacking a prominent federal "target," he was attempting to send a message to Washington. And the message, insofar as it concerns the damage truck bombs can do, did get through.

Yet there are other ways to interpret this time-space scenario, and the more quiet time you spend at the memorial, the more attractive the alternatives become. The very idea of two minutes after 9 o'clock becomes universal. It could be a minute of any date in any place -- the elusive present, or past, or future of one's own life, or that of one's family or city or country.

This thought can be an antidote to the atmosphere of fear that McVeigh and other terrorists would instill. Seen in this way, the void at the Oklahoma City memorial is a powerful reminder that symbols themselves are important. It suggests, at the very least, that by denying or severely limiting access to the cherished symbols in our beautifully symbolic capital city, we lose a lot of what we are trying to protect.

It's a balancing act. Fortunately, the section of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House no longer is the armed camp it seemed for so long to be. But neither is it the lively part of the city it once was and should again become. When I return for a walk under the greening new trees there, McVeigh's name will pop into my mind, again.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company