The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Oklahoma, the 1995 bombing offers lessons — and warnings — for today’s fight against extremism

Oklahoma City bombing survivor Fran Ferrari visits Lake Hefner, where she often walks for mental restoration. (Nick Oxford for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

OKLAHOMA CITY — Most years, the flashbacks start in April, images of blood and brick that return Fran Ferrari to the morning when she was nearly killed in the Oklahoma City bombing.

 This year, however, Ferrari’s memories arrived early when she heard glass shatter during news coverage of the Jan. 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol. The noise instantly took her back to the rubble of her downtown office in 1995. The rioters yelling on TV sounded to Ferrari like an alarm bell, a warning that the deadly extremism that upended her life had resurged.

 “All those faces. All I think is that it’s a bunch of Timothy McVeighs and his buddies,” said Ferrari, 66. “Maybe people’s definition of domestic terrorism is after it happens, but I define it when you see the seeds.”

 Those “seeds” Ferrari saw at the Capitol are finding fertile ground in Oklahoma, where politics can be more powerful than memory. Domestic terrorism analysts trace a straight line from the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building to the Jan. 6 breach — two history-making attacks fueled by anti-government, conspiratorial thinking. Yet in the same city where McVeigh detonated a nearly 5,000-pound bomb, killing 168 people and wounding hundreds more, top Republican leaders are reluctant to acknowledge far-right extremism, much less take meaningful steps to address it.

 “I’m a big proponent of naming the elephant in the room,” said Ferrari, who worked as a criminal justice analyst across the street from the federal building in 1995. “And that’s what it is.”

President Biden on June 1 spoke in Tulsa on the 100th anniversary of the 1921 massacre. (Video: The Washington Post)

Talking about political violence is especially fraught this year, as Oklahoma faces its long-buried history of racial bloodshed. This is the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, when a White mob razed a prosperous Black district in what President Biden called “an act of hate and domestic terrorism.” An hour outside of Tulsa, Leonardo DiCaprio and other Hollywood stars are filming a movie about the “Reign of Terror,” when wealthy Osage Native Americans were killed in the 1920s.

The devastation of the Tulsa Race Massacre

Many Oklahoma educators, activists and politicians view this moment as an opportunity to confront historical violence in an unflinching way that serves as a national model. The same goes, they said, for sharing lessons from the Oklahoma City bombing, which is getting renewed attention under Attorney General Merrick Garland, who oversaw the criminal investigation and is now leading a reinvigorated fight against domestic terrorism at the Justice Department. In a speech this month, Garland cited the Tulsa and Oklahoma City attacks as inspiration for the Biden administration’s revamped domestic terrorism strategy.

“The people who live in Oklahoma City have a special obligation to figure out what are the paths out of that type of extremism, because we know where it leads,” said Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, an anti-Trump Republican. “Ultimately, it leads to violence.”

A “Better Conversations” program and plans to honor the state’s civil rights crusaders are among a string of new projects intended to encourage dialogue and change Oklahoma’s image as a cautionary tale. But those efforts are undercut by a political class that, like other GOP strongholds nationwide, is increasingly dominated by hard-liners who rarely speak against right-wing extremism or, worse, promote it.

 Five influential Oklahoma Republicans interviewed by The Washington Post about the far right quickly pivoted to discussing Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters, painting the threats as equivalent despite FBI figures that show that the extreme right is by far the most active and violent domestic concern.

The rise of domestic extremism in America

Others privately expressed worry about the increasing extremism and its conservative apologists, but said that the potential political consequences were too great to speak out publicly. “It’s McCarthyism,” one state official lamented.

Nine days before this year’s April 19 bombing anniversary, Oklahoma Republicans announced their new state party chairman: former legislator John Bennett, a retired Marine whose many bigoted remarks include calling Islam “a cancer.” In 2017, Bennett labeled some state agencies “terrorists,” prompting the Oklahoma Public Employees Association to demand an apology. A campaign ad from his legislator days shows Bennett, his wife and their three children in red, white and blue shirts, each brandishing a rifle. 

“The Oklahoma Republican Party is now a hate group,” declared a columnist at the Oklahoma City Free Press when Bennett was named chairman. Bennett did not respond to a request for comment.

Just over a week later, Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican who was endorsed by Donald Trump, marked the 26th anniversary of the bombing with a speech that asked Oklahomans to “guard their hearts from the forces of hate and violence.” But Stitt did not raise domestic terrorism as a threat while standing at the blast site, although he did take a swipe at “cancel” culture.

Ferrari, a longtime Republican who began identifying as an independent in recent years, watched the anniversary events on TV, the speeches mingling with her own memories. She recalled how she put on her favorite black dress that morning. The coat of red Revlon lipstick she applied quickly at a stoplight. An ordinary work call at the office.

After the blast, the memories blur. She remembers a medic cutting the dress off her body. Flying glass that “nailed my eyes shut.” Shrapnel tangled in her hair.  

Ferrari said the human toll of Oklahoma City must not be diminished for partisan points. Nobody wins, she said, by looking away as extremists once again organize under the same ideologies that motivated McVeigh.

“Coming up, being in the midst of debris, and thinking to yourself, ‘Am I going to die? Are these my last moments?’ Hearing bricks falling and people screaming,” Ferrari recalled. “I don’t want anybody to have to go through what I went through.”

Sacred ground, battleground

Today, the three-acre plot where the Murrah building once stood is home to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, with its striking outdoor display of 168 chairs to honor those who were killed in the bombing. Nineteen are smaller than the others, symbolizing the children who died.

“Sacred ground, common ground” is a motto of the memorial. These days, executive director Kari Watkins is also guarding it from becoming a battleground as the memorial’s straightforward warnings about violent extremism bump up against increasingly partisan views of the problem.

“I would say our mission is as relevant today as when it opened,” Watkins said. “The average American doesn’t understand how an American can turn against their country. They just don’t get it. We hear it every single day: How could someone have done this?”

The museum doesn’t gloss over motive or method. There’s a photo of McVeigh selling bumper stickers that read “Fear the government that fears your gun” outside the Branch Davidian compound during a federal siege outside Waco, Tex., in 1993. Historians say the fiery standoff was one of the biggest factors in his radicalization; McVeigh picked the Waco anniversary for his attack date.

Another display shows “The Turner Diaries,” a 1978 novel popular among white supremacists and far-right militia groups that imagines a truck bomb at FBI headquarters. Excerpts of the book were found in McVeigh’s getaway car, a 1977 Mercury Grand Marquis that’s also in the museum. Nearby is the T-shirt McVeigh wore, with slogans that are still popular with today’s incarnation of the extremist “patriot movement.”

A couple of months ago, the museum added an exhibit about present-day domestic terrorism that asks, “Do you see a relationship from the violence that occurred on this site and the events happening in our world today?” It offers conversation prompts such as “What are the pros and cons of having a domestic terrorism law?” and “Does social media play a part?”

From the earliest talks about how to remember the bombing, Watkins said, combating violent extremism was a key plank. The original plan was to have “three legs of the stool” — the memorial, the museum and the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. The MIPT was an on-site think tank that worked with extremism experts nationwide to train law enforcement officials and assess threats. It was shuttered in 2014 for lack of funding; by that time, it had broken off from the museum to become a separate entity.

“It’s one of those things I wish could’ve been done a little bit better,” Watkins said.

On the afternoon of Jan. 6, as the Capitol riot unfolded, Watkins, a Republican whose father was a longtime state GOP luminary, watched on TV in dismay. She recalled thinking, “Where did we go wrong that people think they can go from a peaceful protest to an insurrection in a matter of steps?”

 She added: “I remember texting my two teenagers and saying, ‘Don’t ever think this is normal, don’t ever let the world tell you this is normal.’ This should never happen.”

The making of a myth: Selling the story that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump

Memorial staff members had a scheduled Zoom call with educators that day. Watkins said that the meeting went on, but that “everyone was in a weird mood” because of what was happening in Washington.

“For history teachers, that was hard to watch,” Watkins said. “We thought, ‘Gosh, we have to get something out, we have to give them a resource.’ ”

The memorial disseminated talking points based on the experience of helping families through a national trauma. Although many teachers and parents appreciated the gesture, there was also backlash.

“There were a lot of people who didn’t like us using the word ‘insurrection’ in our educational material,” Watkins said. “I had a superintendent call me about it. I was like, ‘Well, what would you call it?’ He said he didn’t know.”

 The Oklahoma Department of Education posted the memorial’s talking points on its official Facebook page. That post received more than 200 comments, most of them from parents accusing state officials of vilifying a right-wing mob but staying silent about rioting during racial justice protests last summer.

“I was like, ‘What could be more benign than posting the national memorial’s thoughts on how to talk to your kids about everything going on, and the response was, ‘Were you talking to them about Black Lives Matter?’ ” said Phil Bacharach, chief of staff at the state Education Department and a registered Republican. “ ‘What about them? What about them?’ was the pushback.”

Some commenters were aghast that the link had come from the memorial. “How in the world is this even remotely the same as the Oklahoma bombing??!!!” one teacher wrote. Another derided the education department as the “Oklahoma Dept of Socialist Indoctrination.” An angry dad clashed with other parents who argued that McVeigh’s radicalism and the anti-government rhetoric at the Capitol were “the very definition of the same context.”

The father’s final move was posting an all-caps Thomas Jefferson quotation that he incorrectly attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “THE TREE OF LIBERTY MUST BE REFRESHED FROM TIME TO TIME WITH THE BLOOD OF PATRIOTS AND TYRANTS!”

The same words are on the back of McVeigh’s T-shirt in the bombing museum.

The Oklahoma Standard

On Jan. 6, lawmakers were already aware of a ruckus outside the Capitol by the time it was Sen. James Lankford’s turn to speak on the Senate floor.

Lankford, a deeply conservative Southern Baptist pastor from Oklahoma, had planned to join other Trump allies in opposing the certification of the presidential election results, essentially supporting the baseless “Stop the Steal” belief. As he saw his colleagues furiously texting and checking Twitter for security updates, Lankford recalled, he turned to Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.).

“I said, ‘What do you think the chances are that I make it all the way through this speech?’ And he laughed and said, ‘Probably not good,’ ” Lankford said. “So I stepped up to speak and, sure enough, about three minutes into the speech, I look up and see the Secret Service run in and grab the vice president.”

The serendipity of being that guy at that place at that time now threatens Lankford’s political future. He recalled being ushered out of the room with everybody else, still unaware of how serious the situation was until a police official arrived.

“He had a cut above his eye and his cheek was bleeding,” Lankford said. “And he walked in and started briefing us and we understood that things were very different over there than what we would ever hope would be happening at the Capitol.”

The scene was so unsettling to Lankford that he abruptly withdrew his opposition to certifying the electoral college votes. Lankford and Daines issued a joint statement saying that the “actions at the Capitol are indefensible” and calling on the nation to “rise above the violence.”

 But it was too late for outraged Democrats, who viewed anyone who co-signed falsehoods about the election as complicit in the violence. Meanwhile, Lankford’s about-face was immediately judged an act of betrayal by die-hard Trump supporters.

 “When you end up in the middle of the road, you get hit by cars going in both directions,” said Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan, a conservative supporter of Lankford’s.

Punishment arrived in the form of a primary challenger, Jackson Lahmeyer, a 29-year-old Tulsa pastor whose social media posts have denied the seriousness of the novel coronavirus and minimized the threat of violent white supremacists. He’s endorsed by Trump ally Michael Flynn, a former national security adviser who plans to visit Oklahoma this month to campaign for him. On Twitter, Lahmeyer, who recently began using the hashtag #ReinstateTrump, portrays Lankford as a coward who caved to liberal spin that exaggerated the Capitol attack.

 Lankford, a conservative stalwart who still publicly supports Trump, said he stands by his Jan. 6 decision.

 “Some people say, ‘I need to find someone who will yell more, who’s angrier, who’s going to get into the left’s face.’ They say, ‘I want to see people screaming at them because that’s what I want to do,’ ” Lankford said. “My response to that is, ‘I’ve never had anyone change my mind by screaming at me.’ ”

Longtime Oklahoma political observers view Lankford as a parable about what happens to those who call out the party’s extremism, no matter how muted or belated the remarks. Rep. Stephanie I. Bice, another Oklahoma Republican, now risks a similar fate by breaking with the party to support a national commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack.

Oklahomans across the political spectrum said the tug of war over the Capitol narrative made them wonder how politicized the 1995 bombing would be if it occurred today.

“Now we’ve seen how bad this alt-truth movement is,” said Ben Fenwick, an Oklahoma-based writer who covered McVeigh’s confession and trial, and who revisited the bombing last year with a book debunking conspiracy theories.

Fenwick, who listened to about 50 hours of McVeigh interview tapes for his research, said it’s chilling to see how the bomber’s conspiratorial thinking now permeates the state he attacked. Fenwick’s eye doctor, a woman who fitted him for new glasses not long ago, was at the Capitol on Jan. 6. So was Rarchar Tortorello, his Norman City Council representative, who won election in February in one of the state’s most liberal cities even after voters learned of his presence at the Capitol and promotion of QAnon, a sprawling set of false claims that pit Trump against a cabal of deep-state Satan worshipers and child traffickers.

The bombing memorial gift shop sells $21 T-shirts printed with, “Oklahoma Standard,” a phrase that emerged from the outpouring of support and solidarity in 1995. But the slogan rings hollow in the Us vs. Them politics of today.

In the same year that Oklahoma’s Tulsa Race Massacre is finally recognized, the state’s leadership infuriated Black residents with new laws that make it harder to film police violence and teach about systemic racism. The American Civil Liberties Union is poised to challenge another new law that offers protections for drivers who ram protesters, ostensibly in self-defense.

 “You look around here and there’s all these bumper stickers that say ‘Second Amendment Solution,’ ” Fenwick said. “What are you going to solve with that? Are you going to shoot people that you disagree with?”

In a brief phone interview, Stitt, the governor, pushed back against the idea that extremism is a more urgent problem on the right than the left. Across the board, he said, “there’s a refusal to listen to another point of view.”

Stitt alluded to civil rights protests that turned violent here last year; at one, vandals sprayed graffiti and broke a video monitor at the bombing memorial. Stitt noted that he had mobilized the Oklahoma National Guard three times in the past year because of the risk of extremist attacks — for civil rights protests in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, for a big Trump rally in Tulsa and on Inauguration Day.

“There’s extremists on both sides, and when you get those very extreme groups together, it’s like a powder keg, and obviously you have to be vigilant,” Stitt said.

The most visible state Republican to deliver a full-throated condemnation of right-wing radicalism is Holt, the mayor who is freer to speak because he faces a purple Oklahoma City electorate and not ruby-red statewide voters. Most Republican leaders, Holt said, are “trapped and they feel they have to answer to extremists, so the last thing they’re going to do is take on their own voters.”

Holt argues that they must take a longer view of the problem, even if costs them elections.

“It’s a very simple statement and a very simple lesson,” he said. “Look at that scar in downtown Oklahoma City and the 168 lives we lost, and recognize that that’s where this all leads if you pursue this path of extremism.”