Every so often, for one reason or another, people try to tally up the score between their ideological allies and opponents. This activity always strikes me as having a bit of a juvenile, playground quality to it — “My side is better than your side” — as though complex sociopolitical questions could be decided by a game of freeze tag. Consider this tweet from Salon:
This photograph shows the aftermath of the explosion at the Alred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City — apparently, Salon’s social media department seems to think that bomber Timothy McVeigh was a “Christian” extremist. While the article itself describes the act as an incident of right-wing extremism, not Christian terrorism per se, others have tried to make the link explicit. Testifying in a Senate hearing, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “We do not portray the Oklahoma City bombing as Christian terrorism, even though Timothy MacVeigh thought of himself as a Christian.” A meme I’ve seen floating around social media lately puts it even more aggressively:
Not only does this meme repeat the claim, it attaches a purpose to it by linking it to the recent refugee restrictions: since the deadliest act of domestic terror was committed by a white Christian, perhaps it would be pertinent to be less bigoted towards Muslims.
First of all, neither Timothy McVeigh nor co-conspirator Terry Nichols were practicing or professing Christians. “McVeigh is agnostic,” Lou Michel, McVeigh’s biographer, told CNN in the days leading up to McVeigh’s execution. “He doesn’t believe in God, but he won’t rule out the possibility.” McVeigh also famously said, “Science is my religion.” Perhaps we should ask Neil deGrasse Tyson to answer for him? Nichols converted to Christianity in prison, though some have claimed this was an attempt to gain jury sympathy. Terrorism expert J.M. Berger adds, “Neither McVeigh nor Nichols ever showed the slightest interest in religion prior to the Oklahoma City bombing. Neither man was devout. Neither man proselytized, and neither was associated with any religious congregation or visibly a member of any religious sect.”
“I asked him, ‘What if there is a heaven and hell?’” Michel recalled. “He said that once he crosses over the line from life to death, if there is something on the other side, he will — and this is using his military jargon — ‘adapt, improvise, and overcome.’ Death to him is all part of the adventure.” McVeigh repeated these claims in letters he sent to news outlets in the days leading up to his execution. “If I am going to hell,” he wrote, “I’m gonna have a lot of company.”
Additionally, McVeigh’s act of terror was motivated by political purpose rather than religious devotion. “With his attack,” writes John Mueller, “McVeigh hoped to awaken the American public to the injustices of the government as well as force the government to reconsider both its domestic and foreign policies, that it could not continue down such a path unchecked by the common man.” Berger further notes “the literature found by investigators pointed squarely at anti-federalism as the overriding motivation for the Oklahoma City bombing. Virtually no material with any substantial religious content was found among the conspirators’ possessions. McVeigh, in his final days, made numerous statements about his political and anti-government views, but never delivered a religious manifesto or invoked God in anything but the most casual manner.”
McVeigh himself explained his rationale in a letter to Fox News. “I decided to send a message to a government that was becoming increasingly hostile, by bombing a government building and the government employees within that building who represent that government. Bombing the Murrah Federal Building was morally and strategically equivalent to the U.S. hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq, or other nations.” Far from proselytizing religion, McVeigh preached a defiant anti-government message until literally the day he died. “Based on observations of the policies of my own government, I viewed this action as an acceptable option. From this perspective, what occurred in Oklahoma City was no different than what Americans rain on the heads of others all the time, and subsequently, my mindset was and is one of clinical detachment.”
This is just the first level of irony of using Timothy McVeigh as the go-to example of white Christian terrorism. The second level is that known Islamic terrorists may have been involved in the Oklahoma City bombing.
In 2005, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher sponsored an investigation into many of the unanswered questions concerning the Oklahoma City bombing. In it, Rohrabacker explores the link between Terry Nichols (who helped design and construct the bomb) and the terrorist Ramzi Yousef. Yousef is most famous for his involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, though he designed and sponsored other attacks as well. Edwin Angeles, the former military strategist for the Philippine terror group Abu Sayyaf, claimed to have seen Nichols meeting with Yousef. “Angeles had trained at the terrorist camp in Mindanao,” says Rohrabacker. “Angeles told McVeigh defense team interviewers that Terry Nichols had met with Yousef… on at least one occasion in Mindanao in the early 1990s.”
Mindanao, Angeles noted, is “the place where Muslims were taught in bomb making.” According to another of McVeigh’s co-conspirators, Michael Fortier, “Nichols’ skill as a terrorist seem(ed) to have grown while in the Philippines. Initially he was an unsuccessful bomb-maker…. Nichols and McVeigh failed miserably when they tested an explosive device in the Arizona desert just six months before they bombed the Murrah building.”
Lending credence to this connection is the similarity between the World Trade Center attack and the Oklahoma City bombing in both the bomb design and its delivery. In both cases, ammonium nitrate explosives were loaded into Ryder trucks and parked at their respective cites. The bombers then fled the scene before detonation.
For obvious reasons, McVeigh’s defense team made much hay of this connection, postulating that Yousef was the mastermind behind the Oklahoma City bombing but had again managed a clean escape. In “Others Unknown,” McVeigh’s attorney Stephen Jones, asks, “If this was true – if, that is, Terry Nichols had gone to the Philippines to be instructed by Ramzi and his band in the art and techniques of blowing up a nine-story building – then mightn’t he have learned another part of Ramzi Yousef’s modus operandi? That it’s always prudent to leave someone else holding the bag?” In “The Oklahoma City Bombing and the Politics of Terror,” David Hoffman goes so far as to claim that Yousef himself was spotted in the region around the time of the bombing. “Three witnesses in Stillwater, about an hour’s drive north of Oklahoma City, saw a man who closely resembles Ramzi Yousef in late October, early November, 1994.” A mechanic who claimed to briefly work with Yousef reported as much to the FBI upon seeing Yousef’s wanted poster in the local police station. While the Bureau did not follow up on this lead, claims placing Yousef in Oklahoma seem somewhat fanciful.
Less fanciful is the link between Timothy McVeigh and an Iraqi emigre named Hussain al-Hussaini. Multiple witnesses described seeing al-Hussaini with McVeigh on the morning of the bombing. Hoffman claims that as many as eight witnesses had seen McVeigh and al-Hussaini together. “They not only placed McVeigh with Hussaini in at least three different locations in Oklahoma City, they were able to trace (McVeigh’s getaway vehicle) to the business where Hussaini worked – to a businessman that had been investigated by the FBI for PLO ties.” That businessman was identified by Rohrabacher as Samir Khalil. Rohrabacher also claims that the name Samir Khalil was included in a list of an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. “This subcommittee asked the Department of Justice to determine if the man’s name on the un-indicted coconspirators World Trade Center bombing list is the same man in Oklahoma City. A letter responding to this request stated that such a task would be too ‘burdensome.'”
That Samir Khalil might (and let me add additional stress to the word “might”) have been connected to Ramzi Yousef is suggestive. That Hussain al-Hussaini served with Yousef in the Hammurabi Division of the Republican Guard during the Persian Gulf War seems rather too coincidental. Though these connections naturally raise important questions, it is likewise important to note that there is no concrete evidence linking either Samir Khalil or Hussain al-Hussaini to Ramzi Yousef. But the possibility lingers.
(None of this even touches on the bizarre ties between McVeigh and Elohim City, a neo-Nazi called “Andy the German,” and a gang of cross-dressing bank robbers that might have financed the whole operation, to say nothing of the investigative blunders by the ATF and FBI in PATCON that could have prevented it entirely. The history of events leading up to the Oklahoma City bombing is a peculiar and fascinating one.)
Let’s shift gears.
So Timothy McVeigh was not a Christian, his motives were not religious, and he maybe had help from Muslims. What’s the point?
In his commentary on how we talk about gun rights, Ken White argues that if we want to talk productively about contentious issues, we “have to stop framing the debate in terms that suggest ‘I hate you and everyone like you. I hate how you live your life.'” The meme above is less an argument about the relative dangers of different forms of terrorism and more an indulgence in low-hanging (if, in this case, poisoned) fruit. Sharing it seems less an attempt to convince someone to adopt a softer stance on immigration, but to tar one’s outgroup as racist, Islamophobic bigots. To echo White, I’m sure this felt good to the people who made it and distributed it, and to the like-minded people who saw it. But it didn’t persuade anyone — other than, perhaps, a few more people to vote Republican.
To their credit, the authors of the Salon piece offer a much more measured perspective: “The events of 9/11 will continue to skew both our real and perceived risks of violent extremism in the United States. To focus solely on Islamist extremism is to ignore the murders perpetrated by the extreme far right and their place in a constantly changing threat environment.” If our goal is to prevent future acts of terror, we cannot downplay the threats posed by either group. “Focusing on national counterterrorism efforts against both Islamist and far-right extremism acknowledges that there are differences between these two violent movements. Focusing solely on one, while ignoring the other, will increase the risk of domestic terrorism and future acts of violence.”
A preoccupation with these particular details often makes these discussions about preserving our sense of self-righteousness, the swell of pride we indulge when we convince ourselves that we’re not nearly as bad as these people. When we turn wickedness into a competition, we adopt the frames that perpetuate that wickedness. Knowing that I’m slightly more likely to die at the hands of a far-right extremist than an Islamic terrorist gives me no comfort: death, no matter the form, is still inevitable. And, anyway, you can’t look up at God when you’re looking down on someone else.
There is merit to investigating the various social, political, economic, ideological, and religious factors that drive people pursue murder. I’d wager we’d find some important commonalities between such people; perhaps those who choose terror, regardless of ideology, are more like each other than they are the peaceful practitioners of their respective faith. But by keeping score, we adopt the simplistic logic of racists: that reference to identity in abstract – whether Christian or Muslim, white, black, Hispanic or Asian – is a useful way to differentiate between good and evil, human and inhuman. Timothy McVeigh said he adopted a mindset of clinical detachment towards his victims; the ultimate repudiation of McVeigh and his ilk is to reject not just his actions but his mindset, to see everyone we meet as created in the image of God.