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A Short History Of April 19, 1995, 9:02

by Jeff Elliott

Countdown to catastrophe


It seems like a typical Wednesday morning at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Inside the boxy concrete building, hundreds of government workers are starting their day. Some are parents are on the second floor, dropping off toddlers and babies at the "America's Kids" daycare. On the floor above them, Florence Rogers is holding a meeting in her office with seven women from her department, their chairs arranged in a semicircle in front of her desk. On another floor higher, members of the public wait in line at the Social Security office. And so it goes for offices on all nine floors. -- business as usual. If anyone notices the large Ryder truck that parked just a minute ago by the main entrance, they probably assume a delivery is being made. Nothing unusual. Except that the cab of the truck is filled with smoke from a burning fuse. And less than two blocks away, a slim 26 year-old man is jogging down an alley. He is wearing earplugs.


The explosion is so powerful that it is almost impossible to imagine. Instantly, cars parked in the vicinity are crumpled, incinerated, flipped about like burning, broken toys. The 250-pound rear axle of the Ryder truck rockets through the air, landing farther than a city block away. Every building within 16 blocks is damaged in some way as the shock wave ripples through downtown Oklahoma City; distant windows blow inwards, spraying insiders with glass shards. Car alarms are shrieking for miles. The Murrah building takes the brunt of the force -- the equivalent of three tons of dynamite (the truck bomb was a "shaped charge" to direct its energy in a particular direction), but incredibly, part of it is still standing. A giant bite has been taken out of it, a U-shaped section missing from all nine floors. 165 people from the building are dead or dying -- including 19 children, fifteen of them from the daycare center which was almost directly above the truck bomb. Florence Rogers suddenly finds herself in her office alone; the building has stopped collapsing just inches from her desk. Her co-workers from the meeting have vanished -- along with the rest of her office -- into the smoking heap of rubble below.

So what went wrong with Tim McVeigh?
In the years since the Oklahoma City bombing, stunned Americans have grappled with understanding how such a thing could happen. Yes, we cope with the tragedy of people needlessly killed (probably, too easily). We can even come to grips with mass-murder, when the killer can be tagged as being on a quest for revenge -- or being just plain nuts.

But then there's Tim McVeigh, responsible for the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil. He had no vendetta against anyone in the Murrah building, and he didn't have little voices nattering in his head. To the contrary, McVeigh appeared to be the Good American Son: smart, well-mannered, a decorated war hero, loyal to a fault. So what went wrong?

A recently published book, "American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh & The Oklahoma City Bombing" goes far to explain McVeigh. Given unprecedented access to interview him over several months, journalists Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck have written the definitive narrative of a killer's life (or at least, his version of the story). They understand McVeigh's motivations well; describing his mindset on the morning of April 19, they write:

Timothy McVeigh was preparing to teach the government a lesson. He was preparing to strike back for Waco, for Ruby Ridge, for U.S. military actions against smaller nations, for no-knock search warrants. It was a list of grievances he'd been amassing for years: crooked politicians, overzealous government agents, high taxes, political correctness, gun laws.

But the authors stumble badly by failing to provide the context for McVeigh's attack. Readers of the book will come away with the belief that he acted alone and the episode will be settled with his death. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The American press has never truly understood the extreme right -- or for that matter, even acknowledged that it exists, although it flows like a dark undercurrent of hate throughout the entire last century. McVeigh's ideas did not emerge from a vacuum; he spent years mixing with others who shared his belief system and reading crackpot literature. After the bombing, authorities sought to find an accomplice to the bombing conspiracy whom they dubbed John Doe #2; that only showed how little they understood McVeigh. In reality, there was John Doe #2-20,000, each a co-conspirator whispering their twisted hate to McVeigh's receptive ear.

Always his life revolved around firearms

The Timothy McVeigh who graduated from high school in 1986 was little different from millions of other white American boys. The son of a factory worker, he was a happy, good kid; there were no traumatic milestones in his childhood. He was smart, but didn't have much enthusiasm for going on to college. He worked at Burger King, liked fast cars, superhero comic books, playing with computers, and wanted to get laid.

His transformation began that summer. McVeigh had always been fascinated by guns; some of his happiest memories were of visiting his beloved grandfather, who had taught him how to shoot a rifle. Now that he was done with high school, McVeigh spent much of his free time reading his favorite gun magazines. From the ads in their back pages he ordered still other magazines and books. Without realizing it, the young man had actually returned to school: The name of his new class was Militia 101.

Soon Tim McVeigh was spending his Burger King paycheck on building a personal arsenal. The 18 year-old became deeply concerned about loss of his "Second Amendment rights," and the certainty that the government would someday confiscate his guns. He decided that he would become a survivalist.

Most controversial of the material that he found that summer was The Turner Diaries, a novel written by a former leader of the American Nazi Party. Published six years earlier, the book was a favorite of Second Amendment enthusiasts. In it, hero Earl Turner finds federal rules tightening on gun control and fights back by blowing up FBI headquarters with a truck bomb.

It's become a cliche that The Turner Diaries was a "bible" that taught McVeigh how to do the Oklahoma bombing. That's a shallow interpretation. Already in the summer of 1986, McVeigh was studying pamphlets and training manuals that offered explicit directions on weaponry and glorified killing. Rather, The Turner Diaries was popular with that crowd because it's the equivalent of the old pop psychology book, I'm OK, You're OK. Now the teenager living in a small town felt that he wasn't alone in the world; others worried about government conspiracies, and that fighting back was patriotic, even heroic. (It is not insignificant that the book also taught that it was acceptable to be racist and anti-semitic.)

McVeigh drifted for a couple of years, but always his life revolved around firearms. He left Burger King for a better paying job as an armed security guard. With a friend he bought ten acres in a remote area, spending much of his free time there "popping rounds." Then in 1988, he joined the Army.

Although he was firmly part of the anti-government gun culture, McVeigh knew enlisting was one of his few tickets out of his hometown and dead-end life. At twenty he had no career, no girfriend, no future. Besides, as a soldier in the infantry he would now have a job that revolved around shooting guns.

These were his happiest times, he told the authors of American Terrorist. (All details in this article about McVeigh's personal life are taken from that biography.) He loved everything about military life, and it didn't interfere with his terrorism studies. While the rest of his buddies were partying on Saturday night, McVeigh hunkered in his barracks reading Soldier of Fortune magazine and studying Army sniper manuals. An ideal soldier, a top gunner (he once scored an unprecedented 1000 out of 1000 points), the Army gave him all the weapons to play with that he could ever want. The closest he came to trouble was when he was told to lay off distributing anti-government books and pamphlets to other soldiers.

When the Gulf War began in 1991, Sgt. Timothy McVeigh was among the frontline troops that led the ground assault. And this is where his love for life in uniform soured: He didn't want to fight in a war unless there was a direct threat to the U.S. He didn't want to kill unless in self-defense (although he vaporized an Iraqi soldier with an amazingly precise shot from his 25mm cannon). He hated taking orders from know-nothing lieutenants. When he returned to the U.S. he was invited to try out for the elite Special Forces, but was out of shape from months living in a tank (and, he later claimed, probably suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome). He couldn't hack the basic training and dropped out after two days. A few months later he surprised his commanding officer by resigning from the Army. Little did the colonel know that his model soldier was living a double life.

Like many before him, McVeigh had been hoodwinked

When arrested by local police outside of Oklahoma City, McVeigh wore a t-shirt with a picture of Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth's famous slogan, "Sic Semper Tyrannis" (Thus Ever to Tyrants)
Even while in the Army, McVeigh was part of the gun show circuit, peddling copies of The Turner Diaries at weekend shows. Living off base, he stocked his little house with guns everywhere, even in the bathroom. At a rented storage locker off base he kept a survivalist's supply of water and other necessities.

McVeigh was also burrowing deeper into the radical right. He joined the Ku Klux Klan, in part to get a free WHITE POWER t-shirt. Although he felt he was a victim of reverse discrimination, he denied being a white supremacist and later innocently claimed that he had no idea what the KKK was all about (yet at the same time, he was distributing racist pamphlets such as The White Patriot to friends).

It was in letters written to his local newspaper and to his sister Jennifer that he revealed that he was deeply immersed in conspiracy-think. "Is a civil war imminent?" he wrote to the newspaper. "Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn't come to that, but it might." To his sister he revealed that the Rockefellers were behind sinister plots, the secret meaning of symbols on the dollar bill (and the urgent need to return to the gold standard), and plans to not only disarm gun owners, but to lock them up in concentration camps.

Like many before him, McVeigh had been hoodwinked by discredited myths that were up to a century old. The literature that formed the core of McVeigh's belief system had changed little since the 1950s -- only the names were different. When Eisenhower was president, it was elite groups of the National Guard were supposed to be the storm-troopers in the coming police state. In the 1990s, it was the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that were going to wear shiny jackboots.

Take the fear of U.S. concentration camps: That dates to 1956, when rightists fighting the Alaska Mental Health Bill spread the rumor that it was a cover to build a sprawling "Siberia U.S.A." Once the territory of Alaska had psychiatric hospitals, they warned, the government planned to use them to imprison patriotic Americans fighting UN invaders.

Um, what "UN invaders?" That actually was another wacky theme popular in 1990s conspiracy-land. By some accounts, there were 100,000 Hong Kong-trained troops hidden in bunkers just across the Mexican border and prepared for war. Any day now, America will be enslaved and resisters who are not shot immediately will be sent to concentration camps that have been secretly built to hold up to a million prisoners. All this will happen as soon as the traitorous president gives the orders.

Like the Alaska myth, this story had old roots. The vision of Chinese armies racing across the border began during the Kennedy years when Operation Water Moccasin, a routine 1963 Army training exercise, devolved into a nationwide rumor of a UN troop invasion. California Senator Thomas Kuchel told Congress that he received up to 5,000 letters per day from frightened citizens.

Who started the whispering? The John Birch Society takes some of the blame, with its long-running demands that the UN and IRS be dismantled. But the Birchers had ample help from the forefathers of Rush Limbaugh. Billionaire H.L. Hunt's daily Life Line broadcasts were heard by millions in the early 1960s, joining dozens of other radio ministers and right-wing commentators warning that the Reds were infiltrating America, laying the groundwork for our inevitable enslavement at the hands of foreigners.

These conspiracy rumors always had a goal, most often to undermine real modern-day events. Take the UN invasion story; 1963 was an important year for the U.S. civil rights movement, and it was surely no coincidence that the rumor had a racist twist -- that there were "sixteen thousand African troops already in Georgia, with rings in their noses and ears." For McVeigh's generation, the names of the players changed only slightly. Now the enemy wasn't just the UN: It was the fuzzy "New World Order," which he heard damned every night on the shortwave patriot broadcasts that had become his source of daily news and opinion.

Thus armed, it was early in 1993 that Tim McVeigh left home for the last time. He told his father that he wanted to live in a state that offered more "personal freedom," with no taxes and no restrictions on gun ownership. McVeigh didn't know exactly where he was headed, but at last he had a career: Sedition.

The appeal of the Freemen movement was that it turned everything on its head

McVeigh may not have had a plan in mind when he left his hometown to find utopia, but a few weeks later he was driving west towards a specific destination: Waco, Texas. The Branch Davidian confrontation was underway, and McVeigh was determined to see it for himself. Federal agents attacking a religious group to confiscate their guns? Unbelievable.

Turned back at a police roadblock, McVeigh instead visited a couple of his Army buddies. In nearby Arizona lived Michael Fortier who was McVeigh's ideological twin, with a "Don't Tread On Me" flag waving outside his desert trailer. Together they gabbed conspiracy-talk about the New World Order and Waco. A year later, Fortier would participate in some of the planning of the Oklahoma City bombing (see MONITOR story).

A few weeks later, McVeigh was at the Michigan farm of Army pal Terry Nichols. McVeigh's father would later insist that Nichols had radicalized his son, and he may be right. Unlike Fortier, this man was no armchair patriot bullshitting about someday fighting Uncle Sam; Terry Nichols was locked in an intense conflict with authorities that could land him in prison.

Nichols was at the leading edge of the "Freemen" movement. He had renounced his U.S. citizenship and insisted that he was no longer bound by U.S. law. Before McVeigh arrived at his farm, "sovereign citizen" Terry Nichols had intentionally charged over $18 thousand on a credit card, then tried to pay off the debt with funny money.

The appeal of the Freemen movement was that it turned everything on its head. Like Nichols, many believed they could duck out of paying mortgages and other bills by insisting that the government had no authority to issue money not backed by the gold standard. Impromptu common-law courts held juristiction over the regular kind. Anyone who declared himself a "sovereign citizen" had the same rights as any state in the union. No laws applied that you did not recognize. You could create your own license plates for a car -- or for that matter, issue your own currency, as Terry Nichols tried to do by writing up his own soverign "Certificate of Credit" and giving it to a circuit court judge hearing his credit card fraud case.

As loopy as these ideas sound, the movement duped many people throughout the west and midwest, as it grew rapidly during the farm crisis of the early 1980s. Besides Willie Nelson benefit concerts, the sharp rise in foreclosures led farmers to search desperately for ways to keep bankers from padlocking their gates. Right-wing groups like Posse Comitatus offered a solution: opt out of the system by claiming that the federal government held no real authority. Needless to say, it never worked and the true believers only found themselves in far deeper trouble. (For much more background on the Freemen movement, see our 1996 MONITOR series).

Few in the Freemen movement really walked the walk, but the movement's great success was as a portal introducing very radical ideas to a broad population. Someone attending a Freemen orientation hoping to learn ways to avoid paying taxes or solve trouble with the law found themselves hearing that the federal government's claim to authority was invalid. Wow, who knew?

The Freemen movement also served as a recruiting device for other groups in the "Christian Patriot" brotherhood, such as Aryan Nations and the vigilante "unorganized militias." (All of these groups came from the same root: the Posse Comitatus, a virulently anti-Semitic paramilitary movement which began operating publicly in 1968.) Anyone who attended a Freemen meeting might find himself on a mailing list for groups with which they shared kinship. The Oklahoma-based United Sovereigns of America even had the same post office box as the Militia of Oklahoma State, which offered pamphlets on how to conduct a prolonged guerilla war against the United States (including use of explosives, chemical and biological agents, and assassinations).

The authors of American Terrorist apparently didn't ask Timothy McVeigh what he thought of his pal's Freeman activism -- a perfect example of this article's theme that the American press doesn't understand the extreme right or what makes them tick. But McVeigh was smart and loved to debate topics such as interpretations of the Constitution; the intellectual tangle of the Freemen credo would have given him plenty to brood over. Even if McVeigh believed only a portion of the tenets of the Freemen movement, it would have given a stamp of legitimacy to his radical beliefs.

With the Freemen movement growing like wildfire in the early 1990s, McVeigh would encounter many other members in his journeys. He would likewise meet a cross-section of extremist America, from militia boys full of bluff and whistle to meek citizens turned into activists over some justice denied. He would visit his friends Mike Fortier and Terry Nichols many times again, and with each trip, they would find a more radical Tim McVeigh.

"Kill the sons of bitches"

In the two years leading to the Oklahoma City bombing, McVeigh was chasing America's heart of darkness. He would visit 40 states, mostly living out of his car as he followed the weekend gun show circuit. McVeigh would peddle odds and ends: Maybe a few anti-Clinton bumper stickers, a copy of The Turner Diaries, baseball caps, a used shirt. Although he was not a gun dealer, he was right at home at these events; they had become travelling political roadshows, drawing locals who wanted to gripe about the government.

The politicized gun shows were only part of a new anti-government, conspiracy-driven mindset that was appearing nationwide. Gun enthusiasts were fighting mad over the Brady Firearms Act and tepid restrictions on semiautomatic weapons included in the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, seeing these as a first steps towards federal gun control. The fiasco at Waco left many ordinary people angry and suspicious that the government was covering up its role in the deadly fire. The entertainment industry fanned this distrust with popular TV programs such as The X-Files and with a new genre of talk radio.

Now just a few years later, it's hard to believe how much hate was spewing from AM and shortwave radio in those years. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) produced a report by journalist Leslie Jorgenson shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing that gave a chilling taste of what was popular, circa 1994. One example was Bob Mohan's program on KFYI (Phoenix), as he attacked Sarah Brady for speaking on behalf of the Brady Bill: "You know, she ought to be put down," Mohan said. "A humane shot at a veterinarian's would be an easy way to do it.... I wish she would just keep wheeling her husband around...wiping the saliva off his mouth once in a while -- and leave the rest of us damn well alone."

The powerful AM signal of KVOR (Colorado Springs) brought millions in the Midwest a daily 6-hour bloc of programs by Rush Limbaugh and Chuck Baker. While listeners could count on Limbaugh for funny voices and amusing rants, Baker's program had a take -no -hostages approach -- literally. He encouraged armed revolution to take out the "slimeballs" in Congress and bureaucrats "who are too stupid to get a job." He helped the militia recruit in the area, and reguarly invited militia spokespersons to appear on his show.

Baker called his listeners to action, according to the FAIR report. "Am I advocating the overthrow of this government?... I'm advocating the cleansing," he declared. "If you combined everybody in the United States of America that you would even estimate to be on the other side, you would only have a drop in the bucket compared to the masses in rebellion," Baker said. "Why are we sitting here?" A few weeks later, a Baker fan did take action, as Francisco Martin Duran drove his pickup from Colorado to Washington and fired 30 rounds at the White House. Baker denied any responsibility, but dropped off the air for a month anyway.

The most irresponsible example was heard in August, 1994, when syndicated talk radio host G. Gordon Liddy told his audience how to kill Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents: "They've got a big target on there, ATF. Don't shoot at that because they've got a vest on underneath that. Head shots, head shots.... Kill the sons of bitches." Later, the Watergate felon said that he wasn't encouraging listeners to kill federal agents -- unless they were "attacking."

As McVeigh hopped from gun show to gun show, he probably was always within range of an AM station broadcasting someone like Liddy or Baker. And wherever he was, he carried a portable shortwave which he listened to most nights. The content of these programs were even more radical. The nightly "Intelligence Report" by Michigan Militia spokesman Mark Koernke on Nashville-based Worldwide Christian Radio (WWCR) was essential listening for anyone truly worried about New World Order conspiracies: Here were the latest black helicopter sightings, or rumors of suspicious troop movements. Koernke was also travelling around the country, appearing at "Preparedness Expos." (McVeigh reportedly acted as his bodyguard during a Florida visit.)

Again, the authors of American Terrorist fail in exploring McVeigh's changes during this important period. Tim McVeigh, the math whiz who loved the Star Trek TV show for its view of a logical utopia, was sounding exactly like the paranoid conspiracy fanatics that he met at the gun shows and heard on radio. He told pal Mike Fortier that they should begin preparing for battle, and that the feds might make him a special target because of his outspoken views. He repeated rumors that the feds were preparing for a natiowide crackdown of gun owners in the spring of 1995.

By the summer of 1994, even his card table inventory had changed. Now McVeigh was selling video tapes of the confrontation at Waco. He also was planning to sell bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. He had heard rumors that the government might crack down on the substance because it could be easily made into a bomb.

One 1995 plot that could have eclipsed McVeigh's bomb

Thanks in great part to American Terrorist, the craziest conspiracy theories about the Oklahoma City bombing should fade. No elaborate scheme was needed to build and explode the bomb; it was well within McVeigh's own doing -- with the help of a few friends.

But again, the book stops short of lending context. As McVeigh's ideas did not emerge from a vacuum, he wasn't the only fanatic to act on his convictions that year. There were several terrorist activities in the months before and after Oklahoma City -- although none with such horrific results. An attempt to explode a fertilizer bomb outside a Reno IRS office fizzled; one person was killed when an Amtrak train near Phoenix was derailed by saboteurs; a string of Midwestern bank robberies were conducted by the Aryan Republican Army; a standoff began between the FBI and Freemen began in Montana that would drag on for months.

There was one 1995 plot that could have eclipsed McVeigh's bomb, if it had been successful. Self-styled prophet Willie "Ray" Lampley and two conspirators were planning to blow up family planning clinics, gay bars, government agencies, and offices of civil rights groups. The 66 year-old Lampley, his wife, and another man were arrested before any of the bombings took place.

Insisting that his targets were working to take over the United States and establish a New World Order, Lampley also claimed to be the "Prophet of Yahweh" in bizarre, rambling messages on the Internet. He also claimed that Jesus Christ would represent him in court, and that he had a Second Amendment right to construct powerful fertilizer and fuel oil bombs, similiar to the kind used by McVeigh.

Lampley was so insane that a South Dakota militia unit even helped authorities gather evidence to send him to jail for eleven years. Still, it was a close call; he was arrested the day before he planned to explode a massive test bomb at remote Elohim City.

1983 plans to blow up Murrah building

McVeigh's head may have been stuffed with conspiracy nonsense, but the driving motivation behind him was vengeance. Revenge for the babies killed at Waco, revenge for Randy Weaver's wife and child killed by an FBI sniper. In McVeigh's violent subculture, history was defined as a series of murderous deeds to avenge martyrs -- although McVeigh himself was an agnostic, he was surrounded by intensely -religious zealots who took the Old Testament "eye for an eye" dictum literally.

Events began in 1983 that would lead directly to the Oklahoma City bombing. That year began as a tax protester and leader of Posse Comitatus (see section on Freemen, above) named Gordon Kahl killed a U.S. Marshall and his deputy as they were attempting to arrest him for non-payment of taxes. Kahl fled, and became a hero to the extreme right -- and later, a marytr when he died in a shootout with authorities.

Kahl's marytrdom was fresh in the minds of all the extremists meeting at the 1983 Aryan Congress at Hayden Lake, Idaho. Here the groups declared war on the United States. Their motto: "War in '84." Plans included assassinations and blowing up federal buildings.

"There were a lot of discussions about targets in 1983," Kerry Wayne Noble, a member of one group later recalled. "I remember talking about driving a van up to the (Murrah) building loaded with explosives. Oklahoma City was important in the sense that so many agencies were in one building, security was so low and no one would expect it to happen there."


Elohim City, where Willie "Ray" Lampley planed to test his bomb, is a Christian Indentity enclave in Eastern Oklahoma. In the years before the bombing, the guest list of visitors included leaders of many groups that had joined the Aryan Congress war against the U.S.

Most famously, McVeigh placed a call to the Elohim City community, and in American Terrorist, he says that he was trying to contact a man that he knew lived there in hopes of finding a hideout after the bombing. Conspiracy buffs believe he was contacting an accomplice that remains unknown.

As a paramilitary organization, CSA working with another terrorist group called The Order, which was robbing banks and had killed a radio talk show host critical of them. The FBI broke up The Order, and on April 19, 1985 -- exactly ten years before the Oklahoma City bombing -- a small army of 300 lawmen swooped down on CSA to arrest founder Jim Ellison and members of The Order hiding on the property. After a tense two-day standoff, Ellison and the others surrendered.

A key player in the surrender negotiations was Elohim City founder Robert Millar, who the FBI had brought to the site. Eventually 14 members would be charged with sedition and plotting to kill a federal judge. Ellison became the state's star witness and received a reduced sentence. He was finally released just a few days before the Oklahoma City bombing, and moved to Elohim City, where he married a daughter of Millar's.

Noble was a leader of The Covenant, The Sword and The Arm of the Lord (CSA), a Ozark extremist stronghold across the Arkansas border from Elohim City. CSA was no harmless- but -quirky Identity religious cult; their cause was to start a war that would lead to the apocalypse, with the second coming of Christ to soon follow.

Jim Ellison, the founder of CSA, had been at the 1983 Idaho conference when war was declared on the U.S, as had CSA member and "Christian Identity" patriarch Richard Wayne Snell. (Christian Identity is the most powerful religious belief of the extreme right, teaching that Anglo-Saxon whites are the God's chosen people, which gives them a divine right over everyone else -- the "mud people.")

After the Idaho gathering, Snell and Ellison returned to the CSA stronghold and discussed how they could destroy the Murrah building specifically. Together they drove to Oklahoma City to case the building, exactly as McVeigh and Fortier would later do. Why the Murrah building? Part of the reason was that Snell's home had just been raided by the IRS, but Kerry Wayne Noble later explained it was the potential shock value of destroying a nine-story building in the heartland of America. "It was the last place you would expect a terrorist act," he said. Among plans discussed was using a rocket launcher "left in a trailer or van" outside the building.

Snell and Ellison didn't carry out their plans, of course; Snell would soon be involved in the robbery and slaying of a pawn browker that he thought was Jewish (he was wrong), and then the killing of a black Arkansas state trooper. Snell was sentenced to death.

McVeigh couldn't have met Snell -- he was imprisoned even before McVeigh joined the Army -- but McVeigh certainly would have known his name. Snell was a celebrity; the Militia of Montana December 1994 newsletter called him "a patriot to be executed by The Beast," and warned he would be executed "unless we act now!!!" Also famous was the date set for his execution: April 19, 1995.

That Snell was to be put to death on April 19 was a jaw-dropper for anyone in the movement. This was their most sacred day -- the 1993 anniversary of the Waco fire, the beginning of the 1992 federal agent assault at Ruby Ridge, the 1775 start of the Revolutionary War and "the shot heard 'round the world." The April 19th date had been dubbed "Militia Day" since the year before, and there were already calls made by several militia groups for demonstrations or other actions.

An astonishing effort was made to try to save Snell's life. The Arkansas clemency board received "conservatively, 1,500 to 2,000 letters," according to a board member. "They sent more mail than we've ever received on any inmate." At his hearing 14 supporters testified -- one of them warning that that they should expect the "wrath of God" if Snell was executed. No clemency was granted.

When it was his day to die, Snell was defiant. "Inmate Snell (says) today is a very significant day for various reasons and that [Arkansas Governor Jim Guy] Tucker picked a bad day," a log entry by a prison guard read that morning. A few hours later, Snell was "smiling and chuckling" as he watched coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing -- according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, he had been predicting there would be an April 19 bombing or an explosion for four days.

His last words were unapologetic: "[Arkansas] Governor Tucker, look over your shoulder. Justice is on the way. I wouldn't trade places with you or any of your political cronies. Hell has victory. I am at peace."

Another martyr had been made. His body was taken to Elohim City by his spiritual adviser, Robert Millar, where it remained in an open casket for three days -- just in case he was resurrected.

So what were McVeigh's plans?
Me and my shadow,
Strolling down the avenue,
Me and my shadow,
Not a soul to tell our troubles to

And when it's twelve o'clock,
We climb the stair,
We never knock,
For nobody's there

-- Billy Rose, 1927

Timothy McVeigh wasn't just a loner; from age 18 on, he lived in a cloistered subculture that insulated him totally from the world. He avoided meeting people that might challenge his opinions; he dodged college and career that might distract from his narrow interests. He spent his life breathing his own exhaust.

McVeigh spent those years constructing a Grand Unified Delusion -- namely, that there was an army of angry civilian patriots prepared to rise up and fight the government in the streets. Not only was that the theme of his favorite book, The Turner Diaries, it was the message he heard reinforced constantly by his media sources and gun show comrades-in-arms. You can view his 1993 - 1995 cross-country travels as his quest to find that great army. He never did. They don't exist. He only stumbled over other lone wingnuts like himself.

McVeigh said in a final interview that the bombing was his "last resort" and a "legit tactic" in his anti-government fight. That rings false -- was he planning to wage war alone? Absurd. Or did he mean that was the bombing was his last resort for flushing the great populist army out of the woodwork? Surely, surely, the people would take action if someone actually fired the first shots -- right?

Maybe the key to his motives can be found by answering another question: What did McVeigh expect to happen after the bombing? In American Terrorist, he tells the authors that he believed that he would be captured by the end of the day -- that he even left the license plates off his escape car to ensure that he would be stopped by police. In this scenario, McVeigh expected to be placed on trial and executed (becoming a celebrated martyr to his cause). That's a lovely tale to spin if you're already in prison, but his actions before the bombing suggest that martrydom was really Plan B.

Just minutes after making the reservation for the Ryder truck, McVeigh made two telephone calls looking for a hideout. One call was to a man he barely knew who lived Elohim City. The other call went to a man he didn't know at all, but represented the neo-Nazi National Alliance -- the group headed by William Pierce, author of The Turner Diaries. He also told the American Terrorist authors that he considered heading for the Arizona desert. McVeigh wanted to flee, but didn't know where to go. And, that he was calling strangers to find his sanctuary, underscores that he was very much a soldier without an army -- that he had been unable to find any sort of organized resistance movement in all his travels.

So what were McVeigh's plans? The final clue is that when he was stopped on a traffic violation outside of Oklahoma City, he was headed north -- not east toward Elohim City, or west towards Arizona.

All evidence suggests only one likely scenario: That McVeigh completely believed that the great army would finally rise up against the government once news of his bombing spread. Sporadic fighting would break out nationwide. The road north from Oklahoma City lead to Michigan, a safe haven with the home of his friend and co-conspirator, Terry Nichols -- and also home to the only real paramilitary group that he knew: the Michigan militia.

It was a plan that closely followed the plot of The Turner Diaries.

Tim McVeigh was not a stupid man, nor cruel, nor insane. But he was a fool to believe such a delusion -- and a monster for acting on it.

Paul de Armond contributed to this story


 Others Unknown Other MONITOR coverage of Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing

The Albion Monitor 404 Reports provide summaries of under-reported news, and updates on previous Monitor stories
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Albion Monitor June 10, 2001 (

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