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Sociology 3320 McVeigh as a Terrorist

Aaron Rudkin 200316966

McVeigh as a Terrorist

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Prior to September 11th, 2001 the deadliest single terrorist attack in United States history was the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Two men--Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols-- were convicted of the attack. This essay is an analysis of Timothy McVeigh's personality, what led him to commit a terrorist attack, what institutions affected or shaped his behavior, and which moral justifications and neutralization strategies he used to clear himself of guilt and responsibility. Because of McVeigh's celebrity, the scope of his trial, and the resources used to find and convict him, there is a relatively large body of evidence both related to the material circumstances of his crime and his background itself. An abundance of primary source material including interview transcripts involving McVeigh and his closest friends and family is available and used in this essay where possible. The most canonical and well respected external source of information about McVeigh's life is "American Terrorist", a biography written by Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck and authorized by McVeigh. Michel and Herbeck are cited in virtually every secondary source on the subject. To understand McVeigh's personality, it is first necessary to ask "what is McVeigh's formative background"? Timothy McVeigh was not always an extremist. In fact for the majority of his life he acted as a model American. McVeigh was a devout Roman Catholic in his youth (Cole), sometimes attending daily mass. While still a child, McVeigh was a frequent target of bullies due to his diminutive stature. According to University of Missouri law professor Douglas Linder being bullied, combined with his grandfather's interest and skill in hunting, lead McVeigh to embrace weapons ownership and develop his skills as a marksman (Linder). In his later life, he argued that his interest in guns was unremarkable and simply "follow[ing] the beliefs of the Founding Fathers [of the United States]" (Cole). McVeigh was consistently conservative and a registered Republican throughout his life (CNN) He joined the army (Michel and Herbeck) at a young age, fighting in the first American Gulf War. Originally joining to become a US Green Beret, McVeigh

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politically objected to US involvement in Iraq and Kuwait (Hoffman 2) His military record was commendable--he successfully forced the surrender of 30 Iraqi soldiers after killing two (ibid). The military no doubt acted as a total institution in conditioning McVeigh to separate in-group and out-group and rationalize the use of violence against "the Other". Turk writes that "McVeigh's military background ... undoubtedly played a role in his self-definition as a soldier who had merely inflicted `collateral damage' in performing his duty" (Turk 279) After returning from the war, McVeigh attempted to resume his dream of joining the elite Green Beret unit, but dropped out after failing a physical test (ibid). The Washington Post (Russakoff) argues that this failure "[broke his spirit]", saying "he was really down on himself." This undoubtedly was a serious failure the likes of which would have placed considerable social strain on McVeigh. His conservative social values placed high emphasis on service to country and personal excellence; a military friend says of McVeigh "he always wanted to do better than everyone" while another claims that McVeigh told him "if he couldn't be a Green Beret, [...] he wouldn't rise quickly enough to make the Army worth the effort". (ibid) Lacking the means to achieve his cultural goals, McVeigh would have been experienced what Durkheim called anomie and attempted to compensate for this failing by making use of the innovation mode of Mertonian adaptation. During his time in the army, McVeigh began to read extremist literature including "The Turner Diaries", a white supremacist survivalist novel by William Luther Pierce that, according to the Anti-Defamation league (ADL), describes a future where the US federal government has come under the control of "the Jews". The ADL also notes that a passage from "The Turner Diaries" was found in the car McVeigh was driving the day of the bombing: "The real value of our attacks today lies in the psychological impact, not in the immediate casualties. For one thing, our efforts against the System gained immeasurably in credibility. More important, though, is what we taught the politicians and the bureaucrats. They learned

McVeigh as a Terrorist today that not one of them is beyond our reach. They can huddle behind barbed wire and tanks in the city, or they can hide behind the concrete walls and alarm systems of their country estates, but we can still find them and kill them." (Pierce 61)

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This passage perhaps emphasizes that for McVeigh, the value of the novel was not particularly its anti-Semitism but rather its description of the struggle against an oppressive bureaucracy. This would prove to be a key tenet of the pseudo-philosophical rationale McVeigh provided for his attacks. After his dismissal from the military, McVeigh found an amplifying force for his conservative political ideals in the American gun show circuit. Selling bumper stickers, flare guns that he claimed could destroy a military helicopter (Violence Policy Center), and copies of "The Turner Diaries", McVeigh began to associate with radical members of the US National Rifle Association. Militiamen, conspiracy theorists, and extreme conservatives discussed the United Nations, theories of an "Illuminati-run government", and federalist theories of freedom with McVeigh during his time on the gun show circuit. (Handlin) The turning point that drove McVeigh's nescient extremism into action was the botched FBI handlings of the Waco, Texas and Ruby Ridge, Idaho standoffs. In both cases, federal agents stormed armed compounds to administer justice resulting in the death of non-combatants including children. According to Linder, McVeigh's reaction to the tragedies was to "strike back" (Linder). McVeigh began to participate in a series of minor crimes (ibid), mentally disengaging himself and preparing for his ultimate attack. Writing to a friend, McVeigh uttered "Blood will flow in the streets... Good vs. Evil. Free men vs. Socialist Wannabe Slaves. Pray that it is not your blood, my friend." (ibid) This text in and of itself demonstrates how McVeigh had begun to make use of neutralization strategies (McCabe) to justify his coming actions--appealing to higher values and authorities including the Founding Fathers and condemning the government for "forcing" him into action.

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Unlike the terrorist described by Wieviorka (53) who lives a double life, McVeigh made no secret of his ambitions to strike back against what he viewed as an oppressive and unjust government. McVeigh's younger sister, Jennifer, was one of his closest confidantes and frequently received violence-promoting epistles in the mail. Shortly before the bombings, he sent her an explanation of his actions including a letter addressed to "tyrannical Federal Agents", writing "Die, you spineless, cowardice [sic] bastards". (J. Thompson) For McVeigh, the terrorist identity had completely subsumed whatever personality he had prior to his awakening as an extremist. It is evident that McVeigh considered himself to be a soldier, however unlike Mohamed Atta there is no readily apparent "double life". McVeigh was a dedicated, full time, antigovernment polemicist who made no secret of hiding his objective. On April 19th, 1995 he drove a rented truck to the front of the Federal Building and detonated a multi-ton fertilizer bomb, killing 168 government workers and children enrolled in a ground-floor daycare centre. This may, however, have been only a fraction of the carnage McVeigh intended to cause; Michel and Herbeck claim McVeigh's initial reaction to the news of the bombing was "Damn, I didn't knock the building down." (Walsh) After a short investigation, police arrested McVeigh. His co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, turned himself in and cooperated with police in exchange for a life sentence. McVeigh himself was sentenced to death and executed by lethal injection on June 11th, 2001) Interviews with McVeigh and his statements after the bombing confirm that he acted in what he believed was a value-rational (Weber) way. Michel and Herbeck report that when asked about the inevitability of his execution, McVeigh told them "he knew he would get caught and even anticipated execution as a form of `state-assisted suicide'." (C. Thompson) While McVeigh did not intend to die during his attack, he was as driven to martyrdom as any suicide bomber. McVeigh stressed the importance to the two interviewers that he not be killed before his trial, seeing an opportunity to present his case to the American public.

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McVeigh clearly made use of in-group out-group reasoning as a strategy of moral disengagement. When asked by Michel and Herbeck about whether he had considered the potential deaths of children, he replied "I understand what they felt in Oklahoma City. I have no sympathy for them." (ibid)

McVeigh shirt reading "Sic Semper Tyrranis" (OCPD)

Aligning himself with other self-styled freedom fighters, his dress the day of his arrest consisted of a tshirt reading "sic semper tyrannis" (thus always to the tyrants), the words uttered by assassin John Wilkes Booth to his victim, US President Abraham Lincoln. McVeigh invoked the libertarian values of the US Constitution and the founding fathers almost as though a Palestinian suicide bomber might

invoke Islamic scripture. As opposed to a religious terrorist who may begin as a secular extremist and drift into religion in order to justify violent actions, McVeigh began as a dedicated Roman Catholic and grew apart from his church, using secular philosophy and jurisprudence as a defence of his bombing. After telling TIME Magazine that he "sort of lost touch with [religion]", McVeigh continues "I think the Constitution is the greatest document ever created by man". (Cole) While McVeigh never publicly spoke about his choice of tactic (perhaps instructed not to do so by his defence attorneys), even a cursory examination of his motive reveals a likely justification. Rebutting President Clinton's handling of the Waco and Ruby Ridge incidents, McVeigh claimed "[Clinton told us] we should not be worried about [incidents like Waco], we should be worried about bombs". (ibid) As if to play on Clinton's warning, McVeigh deliberately chose a domestic

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bombing as the method of attack. In using uncontrolled violence, McVeigh acted in accordance to what Wieviorka argues: "The state represses and seeks to isolate and smash [dissenting groups]... In a symmetrical fashion, the terrorist group organizes operations ... and stockpiles explosives. Both sides often employ the same techniques." (Wieviorka 56) Perhaps the final comparison to be made between McVeigh and the pop culture image of the foreign extremist is in his final statement. Before being lead to the death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana (Guardian), McVeigh released to the public a copy of William Ernest Henley's poem, "Invictus". Excerpted here, it reads as follows: Out of the night that covers me, black as the Pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody, but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years finds, and shall find, me unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul. (Henley) The message here is clear; McVeigh, acting in a value-rational way, intended for his actions to spark a revolution in American thought and mark the beginning of a lengthy resistance to the political forces he opposed, even though it meant his execution. Making use of common moral disengagement strategies, McVeigh executed his task playing the role of soldier, eliminating the enemy and making no apologies for "collateral damage". Using secular philosophy as a justification with an almost religious fervor, McVeigh's words and actions transcend the superficial differences between him and foreign religiously motivated terrorists to paint a portrait of a man much like all terrorists--shaped by social forces and personal failings, dehumanizing and objectifying, and driven to use radical violence as a means of working towards a political goal.

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Digital image. [McVeigh Mugshot]. 1995. Oklahoma City Police Department. Gun Shows in America: Tupperware Parties for Criminals. Violence Policy Center. Washington, DC: Violence Policy Center, 1996. Henley, William E. "Invictus". 1875. Hoffman, David. The Oklahoma City Bombing and the Politics of Terror. Feral House, 1997. "McVeigh's Final Statement." Guardian Unlimited. 11 June 2001. <,7369,505201,00.html>. Cole, Patrick. Interview with Timothy. Time Magazine 30 Mar. 1996. Russakoff, Dale, and Serge F. Kovaleski. "An Ordinary Boy's Extraordinary Rage." Washington Post 29 July 1995. Thompson, Carolyn. "Book: McVeigh Remorseless About Bomb." Associated Press 29 Mar. 2001. Thompson, Jo. "McVeigh's Sister Tells Why She Aided U.S. Case Against Him." New York Times 7 May 1997. "Timothy McVeigh." CNN. 29 Mar. 2001. CNN. <>. Turk, Austin T. "Sociology of Terrorism." Annual Review of Sociology 30 (2004): 271-286. "Turner Diaries -- Extremism in America." Anti-Defamation League. AntiDefamation League. <>. Wieviorka, Michel. The Making of Terrorism. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago P, 1993.


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