I recall my return visit to Oklahoma City about nine years ago. I was passing through on my way to Lawton, Oklahoma to visit Webster University’s graduate center there. The drive from the airport through downtown OKC brought back memories of my ten years living in the area as a student.
Then, I was eager and very impressionable. How I loved the city! The topography was wide open, the people so down to earth and so tolerant. This had to be the safest city in America, I remember telling myself. And I believed it.
As I approached the city on Interstate 40, I could feel those same old emotions rise within me. The spires of scores of churches climbed above the welter of new suburban development. I had not remembered so many churches, but the sight brought back to mind the way the people of Oklahoma City treated each other with respect and civility.
It was the antithesis of acts of kindness and understanding that brought me back to Oklahoma City. I had come to see the monument to the victims of the bombing of the Murrah Building. My trip had been prompted in part by “American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing,” the recent biography of McVeigh.
The book troubled me. It unintentionally glorified the heinous, senseless acts of hatred, fear and intolerance that resulted in the horrendous blast that mutilated and killed 168 men, women and children. For some who are bitter and disenfranchised, I am afraid Lou Michel’s and Dan Herbeck’s biography will illuminate a path of vengeance.
We have seen how one school shooting leads to another, how reports of workplace murders tend to beget others, how violence leads to copycat crimes. We have seen how the tranquility of middle-American cities has been forever shattered by the willful, dastardly acts of one or two deranged people.
Did Tim McVeigh’s execution on May 16, 2001 avenge the murders of the 168 killed in the bombing? What kind of society have we become, that this execution is deemed by the courts to be fitting “closure” to grief felt by family members of the victims? How does his death restore Oklahoma City’s persona to that which I knew as a student and young professional years ago?
I still have no answers nor were any apparent to me as I gazed on the stark and silent chairs – each representing a McVeigh victim – on the site where the Murrah Building once stood.
No longer can I look at the Oklahoma City skyline and feel the sense of peace and goodwill that greeted me two decades ago. In that sense, we are all victims; victims of a malady for which there is no apparent cure. We may legislate against possession of guns, or explosive devices, or implements of group destruction. That will help. But it is we, not the materials that lie at the core of those abject acts of utter violence. It begs the question, what shall we do about us?