Hank Stuever reviews MSNBC's 'McVeigh Tapes'

Survivors and family members of those who died in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building will gather at its former site Monday to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2010

Fifteen years ago today, Timothy McVeigh parked a Ryder truck filled with explosives and ammonium nitrate fertilizer in front of the Oklahoma City federal building and detonated a bomb so strong it sheared off half the building and killed 168 people. History is still puzzling through the event's lingering effects.

McVeigh is dead (he was executed in 2001) and yet very much with us, in an eerie vibe that rolls around every April 19. At least he is for MSNBC talk-show host Rachel Maddow, who has been having 1990s flashbacks with the anti-government vitriol that most recently accompanied the health-care reform debate.

"Nine years after his execution, we are left worrying that Timothy McVeigh's voice from the grave echoes in the new rising tide of American anti-government extremism," Maddow says at the outset of her MSNBC special Monday night called "The McVeigh Tapes: Confessions of an American Terrorist."

She's talking, of course, about the latest news about militias, weapons stockpiling, "tea party" anger and the perception of rising unrest in those who seek to reclaim an America supposedly lost to federal control: "On this date, which holds great meaning for the anti-government movement," Maddow says, "the McVeigh tapes are a can't-turn-away, riveting reminder."

What MSNBC has here are 45 hours' worth of cassettes containing prison interviews McVeigh gave to Lou Michel, a reporter from the Buffalo News. The interviews formed the basis of Michel's 2001 book "American Terrorist" (with co-author Dan Herbeck), and they are probably the most comprehensive discussion McVeigh ever had after the bombing, about his life, views and motives.

In Maddow's special, the tapes get a chilling new listen, in which a clear-voiced, unrepentant McVeigh talks how those 168 deaths made him feel: "I had no hesitation to look right at [the victims' families, in court] and listen to their story. But I'd like to say to them: 'The specific details may be unique, but the truth is you're 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."

This sort of arrogance is difficult to stomach. (And for what it's worth, Oklahoma City is my home town; I have a passing acquaintance with some of the bomb victims' friends and families.)

Maddow and company wisely decline to draw too straight a line from 1995 to 2010, but, as she indicates, it might be helpful in crazy times to study this sort of crazy head-on. A raft of FBI investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys and former neighbors are helpfully added to the show with fresh interviews, illuminating and lending hindsight to the likely reasons McVeigh chose terrorist action. The news footage from 1995, along with memories from survivors, makes you realize how long ago this event now seems.

More than just an anniversary retrospective, "The McVeigh Tapes" is especially interested in McVeigh's victimization by bullies in school; his love of firearms (without calling him a gun nut); and his disillusionment with the government after his Army service in the Persian Gulf War. Things really fell apart on April 19, 1993, when McVeigh watched on television as the David Koresh compound in Waco, Tex., burned to the ground after a long standoff with feds. "I'm watching flames lick out windows, and I'm watching tanks ram walls. My eyes just welled up in tears," McVeigh said. "What is this? What has America become? . . . I'm emotional right now as I talk about it. I felt absolute rage."

Striking as the tapes may be, the audio alone cannot satisfy the modern demands of TV news documentaries, so MSNBC hired an actor to play McVeigh and used a computer animation effect to make the actor resemble McVeigh. This figure then travels through a re-created, blandly poetic-looking Midwestern collage of interstate highways, storage units, faraway farms and, finally, the streets of downtown Oklahoma City.

The effect is jarring at first, feeling a bit like a fanatic's version of "Grand Theft Auto" video games. But it works, especially as it reenacts that unforgettable morning, with McVeigh sitting at the stoplight half a block from the federal building, igniting a two-minute fuse. He grows increasingly nervous as he waits for the light to change and the cab of the truck fills with smoke. "I swear to God that's the longest stoplight I've ever sat at in my life," he said, with a chuckle.

Watching this, it's easy to feel like that fuse is still lit.

The McVeigh

Tapes: Confessions

of an American Terrorist

(one hour) airs at 9 p.m. Monday


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