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'Oklahoma City' Explores Anti-Government Sentiments That Contributed to Bombing


If we were to ask what is the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil, what would you say? Certainly 9/11. But before that, it was the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. That's when a former soldier named Timothy McVeigh set off explosives packed into a rental truck in front of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building and killed 168 people, including children at the day care center and civil servants who worked on Social Security claims, housing vouchers and payments to veterans. Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted and executed for the crime in 2001, was understood to have embraced white supremacy and strong anti-government beliefs.

But just how he came to have those beliefs and what role those ideas have played in American life is the subject of a new documentary. It's called "Oklahoma City," and it was written and directed by Barak Goodman. We reached him in Park City, Utah, during the Sundance Film Festival last week, where the film was being screened. Mr. Goodman, thank you so much for joining us.

BARAK GOODMAN: Thank you so much for inviting me on.

MARTIN: The film spends a lot of time talking about two previous incidents of government confrontation with separatist groups, Ruby Ridge and Waco. Can you just briefly try to remind us of what those events were and why they are relevant to this film about Oklahoma City?

GOODMAN: Ruby Ridge was a confrontation between the FBI and a family of white separatists called the Weavers in northern Idaho. The relevance for our film is that it inflamed a nascent far-right movement - really a very old movement, but a new flowering of that movement. And then six months later, at Waco, people will probably remember the standoff with the Branch Davidians. The Branch Davidians were not white supremacists at all.

But again, it was the symbolism of the surrounding of this compound by federal agents and then the ultimate tragic death of, you know, upwards of 80 people inside. And for McVeigh personally, these two events confirmed his worst fears about the government, his worst grievances and anger. They were key moments in his radicalization, which is why we go back and tell those stories.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit more about Timothy McVeigh for people who may not remember him. What's his story?

GOODMAN: So McVeigh was a ordinary suburban kid, grew up outside Buffalo, N.Y., was in love with guns from a very early age. He was a bit isolated. Ended up in the Army because of his love of guns, went to Iraq and began to develop this deep antipathy for the federal government. He felt that he was a tool for an unjust war. And then when he came back, his life began to fall apart. He couldn't get a job. He was lonely. He fell into this sort of subculture of far-right ideology mostly at gun shows, where he would trade old army surplus to make a living.

And it was there that the radicalization really happened, especially with this book called "The Turner Diaries," which is almost the Bible of the far-right movement. And gradually, he became bent on committing some kind of - what he regarded as a kind of active insurgency against the government in an ongoing war. And he developed his plan to bomb the Murrah Building.

MARTIN: You include some tape from a jailhouse interview with McVeigh where he talks about his motives.


TIMOTHY MCVEIGH: From a military perspective, to get a message across you need to hurt them where they hurt the most. The only way they're going to feel something and the only way they're going to get the message is with a body count.

MARTIN: Did he have any remorse about the fact that children were killed?

GOODMAN: I don't know whether McVeigh was classically or clinically a sociopath, but the tapes are absolutely chilling. He believed he was a soldier in an ongoing war with the government. And in war there is collateral damage, and these innocent children in the day care center were part of that. They were simply collateral damage.

MARTIN: The journalists and the police that you interviewed called this movement the far right. It appears at a very interesting moment in our history where we are understanding what many people are calling the resurgence of something called the alt-right. Do you see parallels between these movements? Are there connections to your knowledge and according to your reporting?

GOODMAN: I am not an expert on the alt-right and don't pretend to be, what we're calling the alt-right today. Certainly those connections have been made by people like the Southern Poverty Law Center, which does track these things. My hope is that our film will open people's eyes to this very deeply-held grievance against the federal government that unites a lot of people and keeps reappearing periodically through American history. And it has these moments where it bursts into our consciousness, and I think Oklahoma City was such a movement.

Whether that's happening now I think we'll only know in hindsight. I do think that people looking out today will benefit from understanding the dynamics of what happened in the mid-'90s. And they can apply that knowledge and that deeper understanding to what's happening now and make their own judgments.

MARTIN: I want to dig into - a little bit into the range of beliefs. You're saying that they're not motivated by just one perspective. Tell me a little bit about that.

GOODMAN: Yes, I think the movement is - it's a continuum, I would say. And on one side are people motivated chiefly by Second Amendment passions, that they are worried that the federal government is coming to take their guns away. And I would say that McVeigh was further in that direction. On the other side of the continuum are pure white supremacists often motivated by a perversion of Christianity called Christian Identity where - in which they believe this country is meant for them, they are the ones who are supposed to be running this country, everybody else is inferior.

But I think what really unites all of these people is this vesting of the federal government with all sorts of evil - that the federal government is the problem, is the target that needs to be attacked. It's run by Jews. It's run by inferior people.

And I think if there's one thing we want people to take something away from this film, it's an understanding that the federal government is not a monolithic entity. It is made up of human beings. And the human beings in this case were just ordinary men and women. They were not evil, black-booted, black-suited figures. And I think this movement tends to see the federal government in that way. And that's where a lot of the problems begin.

MARTIN: You know, we've been hearing a lot in the news about the so-called homegrown terrorist movement among Muslims. Do you see parallels to these white separatist groups? Tell me about it.

GOODMAN: There's no question. These terrorist acts often happen after a period of radicalization to people who are isolated, who have access to ideas, whether it's on the internet or through books, in the case of Timothy McVeigh. But there's often a - sort of a bubble around them where they're not getting any alternate views. And I think you see many, many instances of homegrown terrorism on the radical right, however you want to describe that movement, that are very, very similar to what we see with homegrown Islamic terrorism.

And I think the law enforcement agencies are very well aware of this, whereas the public, I think, is more focused just on the Muslim side. And I'm hoping that our film will reorient people to understand that the terroristic threat comes from lots of places, not just from, you know, the Islamic radical side of things.

MARTIN: That was Barak Goodman. He's the writer and director of the new documentary "Oklahoma City." He joined us last week from Park City, Utah, during the Sundance Film Festival. The film is set to broadcast as part of the American Experience series on PBS on Tuesday, but you'll want to check your local listings for the exact times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.