October 22, 2019

McVeigh documentary examines the rightward path of extremists

In the wake of dozens of recent bombing threats to synagogues and Jewish institutions throughout the United States, Barak Goodman’s new documentary, “Oklahoma City,” seems particularly relevant. The film traces how the deadliest domestic terrorist attack ever committed on American soil sprang from roots in the white supremacist movement.

The film includes familiar and not-so-familiar imagery of the April 1995 blast that destroyed Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and killed or injured more than 800 people: charred bodies being removed from the structure’s mangled remains; a surgeon amputating the leg of a trapped young woman, using his pocket knife to finish the job after his other blades break; a bystander remembering the children’s bodies lined up on the sidewalk as a nurse placed toe tags on their feet.

Bomber Timothy McVeigh, who acted with limited help from two accomplices, was executed by lethal injection in June 2001. “But you cannot exonerate the white supremacist movement for the Oklahoma City attack,” Goodman, who lives in New York, said in a telephone interview. “McVeigh was deeply influenced by the ideas and literature of the radical right.”

Groups such as Aryan Nations have long asserted that Jews run the U.S. government and that whites must save America by asserting their white Christian identity. In the 1980s, a paramilitary offshoot of that organization, The Order, named itself after the terrorist cell described in William Pierce’s novel “The Turner Diaries.” The book’s heroes violently overthrow an American government they perceive to be dominated by Jews. Members of The Order in real life robbed banks and armored cars to fund their attacks, and in 1984 four of them murdered Denver Jewish radio host Alan Berg.

McVeigh did not grow up in a white supremacist milieu, but he did develop from his grandfather an enthusiasm for guns and gun owners’ rights while growing up in Pendleton, N.Y. Tall and thin, McVeigh was often bullied by his classmates, who called him “Noodle McVeigh,” leading him to develop what the film describes as his lifelong hatred of bullies.

McVeigh began to see the federal government as the most extreme of bullies while serving in the Army in Iraq, the documentary asserts. Back in the U.S., he became increasingly hostile toward the establishment after he was rejected from an elite Army training unit. His stridency grew even stronger when he was unable to find work despite his military experience. McVeigh then discovered far-right government conspiracy theories and became enamored of “The Turner Diaries,” which he began selling at gun shows around the country. It was at these shows that he met members of white supremacist groups and eventually visited some of their paramilitary sites.

The documentary details how McVeigh became livid upon learning of the deadly confrontations between antigovernment groups and law enforcement in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and at the compound of the apocalyptic Christian Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, the following year. When the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act passed in November 1993, an enraged McVeigh was spurred to action.

He built a five-ton fertilizer bomb, placed it in a Ryder rental truck, parked the vehicle in front of the Oklahoma City federal building and lit two fuses. Moments later, the explosion killed 168 people and injured 675 others.

While McVeigh’s primary motivation was his hatred of the U.S. government, whether he was also racist “has been a controversial area,” Goodman said. The filmmaker said he agrees with Leonard Zeskind, author of “Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement From the Margins to the Mainstream,” whom he interviews in the documentary. “[Zeskind] argues that McVeigh was quite racist and quite anti-Semitic,” Goodman said. “I don’t think you can possibly go around sharing ‘The Turner Diaries’ and touting it as a great book unless you also harbored some of those beliefs.”

Goodman, 53, grew up in a Philadelphia-area home where Judaism was inextricably linked to social justice and civil rights. That philosophy, he said, has strongly influenced the more than 30 documentaries he has produced since attending Harvard and the Columbia School of Journalism. Goodman earned an Academy Award nomination for his 2001 film, “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy,” which recounts how nine African-American teenagers were falsely convicted of raping a white woman in Alabama in the 1930s.

When Mark Samels, an executive producer of PBS’ “American Experience” series, approached Goodman to write and direct “Oklahoma City” about two years ago, the filmmaker quickly signed on. He was intrigued by Samels’ idea to trace McVeigh’s roots to the far right, and he also remembered his shock upon seeing television images of the bombing.

“So much terrorism has happened since in this country, but at the time, this was utterly new within our shores,” Goodman said. “We’d seen these kinds of things happening in Lebanon, but nothing remotely like this had ever happened here in my lifetime. So what we really tried to get across in the film was how people had no context or experience with anything like this.”

As research for his documentary, Goodman conducted about 100 interviews throughout the country, including conversations with an Anti-Defamation League expert, law enforcement officials, first responders, survivors and others. He also perused 65 hours of audiotaped jailhouse interviews with McVeigh, some of which are heard in the film.

Regarding why McVeigh committed his crime, Goodman said, “I think he had a grandiose notion of his own destiny that was totally at odds with the reality of his life. His anger was partly because his circumstances didn’t match his self-regard. He was a smart guy — he had a high IQ — but he had washed out of the military, he was unemployed, and he had had no success with women, even though he thought he was a hot deal. I think a lot of guys who fall under the sway of these right-wing ideologies are looking for something to match their sense of grandness in the world.”

These days, the American public’s focus may be on radical Muslim terrorists, but more than 400 militant white supremacist groups now exist across the country, Goodman said. “The FBI will tell you that they are as aware of the domestic as the foreign terrorists,” he added. “They’re very frightened by them.”

President Donald Trump’s racist, xenophobic rhetoric “has provided a kind of catalyzing effect for their ideas … now there’s a kind of license for them to come out and talk more openly,” Goodman added. “[White supremacists] have exchanged their camouflage for suits and ties, but they’re the same people with the same ideas…. We ignore the terrorists in our midst at our own peril.”

“Oklahoma City” will open Feb. 3 in Los Angeles theaters and air Feb. 7 on PBS.