Twenty years ago, on the morning of April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh set off a bomb in front of the Murrah Federal Building, Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. The attack represented a culmination of the domestic terrorism threat, and the beginning of the transformation the United States’ national security model that ended in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. It remains the worst domestic terror attack in the country’s history, and it came barely two years after the 1993 Twin Tower bombing that claimed six lives. The perpetrators, Terry Nichols, and Tim McVeigh met seven years earlier at Fort Benning, Georgia, during an army training. The two grew angered by the death of suspect’s wife and son following an FBI operation in 1992. The FBI would later be involved in the Waco Siege, which ended on the 19th of April 1993 after 76 civilian lives were lost. The FBI operations were ill-conceived and ended up infuriating the extremist right wings, who saw the operations as deliberate killings of innocent citizens by the government. According to Hewitt (2003), the two may have been driven to terrorism in an attempt to avenge the killings perpetrated by government agencies, but numerous other theories exist as to their motivation and the ultimate choice of their target.
The explosion reduced the northern face of the Murrah Building, damaging all the nine floors and the force of the explosion damaged a further 324 surrounding buildings, overturning vehicles, blew off doors and windows in a 50-block area. The effect of the attack was considerable. An estimated one-third if the Murrah Building was completely destroyed by the mere force of the bomb’s explosion. When the explosion took place, there were eight hundred and fifty individuals inside of the building. Federal agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Social Security Administration (SSA), the Secret Service, the United States Army, the United States Marine Corps, and recruitment offices working for the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), among many others.
Dubbed the Oklahoma City Bombing, this attack terrorism remains the deadliest act of terror that took place in the United States as well as one of the deadliest acts of terror to ever have been endured by Americans, as it killed a total of one hundred and sixty-eight children and adult while injury droves of others (Talley). An estimated 219 children lost at least one parent while 400 and 700 people lost homes and workplaces. Upwards of $650 million was lost in part due to the destruction of property, insurance costs and lost productivity. Other effects included bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder among the direct and indirect victims involved in the bombing, including emergency workers and other citizens of Oklahoma.
The sheer scale of the attack drew speculations of the involvement of foreign governments in the attack and terror cells, drug cartels, and anti-government right wing extremists. Right-wing extremist groups and post-cold war state-sponsored threats had long been identified as a threat to the country, but not homegrown extremists. The recovery of parts of the vehicle led the FBI to Tim McVeigh, who had already been arrested1 for driving without a license, 80 miles to the north of Oklahoma City. After an exhaustive investigation that involved close to a billion pieces of evidence, upwards of 28,000 interviews and 43,000 investigative leads, amounting to three-and-a-half tons of evidence. Both the perpetrators, with their accomplices were convicted of various crimes related to terrorism, mass murder and destruction of property. Nichols was sentenced to 161 consecutive life sentences while McVeigh received a death penalty and was executed on June 11, 2001. Other than McVeigh and Terry Nichols, others who were convicted on charges related to planning, executing and/or having knowledge of the plans to commit terrorism include Michael Fortier. Fortier was convicted for being an accessory to the planning and executing of the attack, Fortier was sentenced to a twelve-year prison sentence and fined $75,000 for his failure to notify authorities of the plans to commit terrorism. The Oklahoma bombing shocked Americans and raised the threat of terror in the consciousness of the government and the American public. Even most importantly, the FBI investigation revealed the non-involvement of foreign actors in the planning and execution of the attack, which in turn refocused attention away from state-sponsored terror cells to domestic terrorism. This marked the beginning of a sea change in governance and law enforcement in the United States. To begin with, The FBI was forced to change tack, instead focusing on domestic terrorism and increased the number of agents on the Joint Terrorism Task Forces. This led to an increased scrutiny of right-wing extremist groups and individuals. It is thought that this re-aligned of priorities in regard to terrorism may have been responsible in part, fort the failure of the US to prevent 9/11 attacks.
In order to ensure harsh punishments for the perpetrators of terrorism and their accomplices, while at once deter further attacks, Congress passed the Antiterrorism & Effective Death Penalty Act (1996), which was assented to by President Clinton. The law reformed habeas corpus and provided for mandatory victim restitution in the event of terror attacks. Further, this act marked the first step in the United States’ efforts in targeting foreign terror targets, including clauses that authorized the removal and exclusion of aliens suspected of involvement in terrorism. In addition, Clinton issued executive order number 12977, which created the Interagency Security Committee in a bid to ensure a centralized coordination of security operations for the federal government (Hewitt 137; Federal Bureau of Investigations 46). It is this need for decentralization ultimately led to the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security.
The Oklahoma City Bombing marked a changed in the American perception of domestic terrorism, and vulnerability of the country to terrorism. It created the impetus for changes in the law, and the beginning of the compromise between civil liberties and national security. The muted opposition to McVeigh’s execution perhaps best evidenced this, which is uncharacteristic of executions in the US. Even most importantly, however, the attack highlighted the plight of the terror victims, which are addressed in part, by the Antiterrorism & Effective Death Penalty Act (1996) and the increased investment in FEMA and other first responders, necessary to prevent deaths and secondary injuries.
Federal Bureau of Investigations. Terror Hits Home: The Oklahoma City Bombing. 18 June 2012. 19 April 2015. <http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/history/famous-cases/oklahoma-city-bombing>.
Hewitt, Christopher. Understanding Terrorism in America: from the Klan to al Qaeda. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Lauter, Deborah M. and Mark Pitcavage. The homegrown extremist threat remains 20 years after Oklahoma City bombing. 19 April 2015. Web. 19 April 2015.
U.S. Department of Justice. Responding to Terrorism Victims: Oklahoma City and Beyod. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 2000.
—. Terrorism in the US 1994. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1994.
Talley, T. Experts Fear Oklahoma City Bombing Lessons Forgotten. 17 Apr. 2006. Wed. 17 Apr. 2015. http://legacy.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20060417/news_1n17okla