Jul 1 1995

The Oklahoma City Bombing: The Jihad That Wasn’t

Rescue workers search the remains of the Murrah Building in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing (photo: FEMA)

Rescue workers search the remains of the Murrah Building in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing (photo: FEMA)

Seldom have so many been so wrong—so quickly. In the wake of the explosion that destroyed the Murrah Federal Office Building, the media rushed—almost en masse—to the assumption that the bombing was the work of Muslim extremists. “The betting here is on Middle East terrorists,” declared CBS News‘ Jim Stewart just hours after the blast (4/19/95). “The fact that it was such a powerful bomb in Oklahoma City immediately drew investigators to consider deadly parallels that all have roots in the Middle East,” ABC‘s John McWethy proclaimed the same day.

“It has every single earmark of the Islamic car-bombers of the Middle East,” wrote syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer (Chicago Tribune, 4/21/95). “Whatever we are doing to destroy Mideast terrorism, the chief terrorist threat against Americans, has not been working,” declared the New York Times‘ A.M. Rosenthal (4/21/95). The Geyer and Rosenthal columns were filed after the FBI released sketches of two suspects who looked more like Midwestern frat boys than mujahideen.

Conclusions were drawn from speculation with breathtaking speed. “Knowing that the car bomb indicates Middle Eastern terrorists at work, it’s safe to assume that their goal is to promote free-floating fear and a measure of anarchy, thereby disrupting American life,” the New York Post editorialized (4/20/95). “In due course, we’ll learn which particular faction the terrorists identified with—Hamas? Hezbollah? the Islamic Jihad?—and whether or not the perpetrators leveled specific demands.”

Nor were pundits shy about drawing policy conclusions from their speculations. Restrictions on immigration was a popular rallying cry—ironically reflecting the same strain of xenophobia characteristic of the militia movement that the real suspects are associated with.

Other policy recommendations had a more bloodthirsty tone. An op-ed in New York Newsday by Jeff Kamen (4/20/95) complained that officials had ignored “a sizable community of Islamic fundamentalist militants in Oklahoma City,” and urged that military special forces be used against “potential terrorists”: “Shoot them now, before they get us,” he demanded.

Syndicated columnist Mike Royko wrote (Chicago Tribune, 4/21/95):

I would have no objection if we picked out a country that is a likely suspect and bombed some oil fields, refineries, bridges, highways, industrial complexes. . . . If it happens to be the wrong country, well, too bad, but it’s likely it did something to deserve it anyway.

A few days later (4/24/95), after the identities of the FBI’s suspects were announced, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper retorted: “Does that mean we conduct overnight bombings of Arizona and Kansas and Michigan now?”

Terror From the Heartland

Sketch of Oklahoma City bombing suspect with Tim McVeigh.

The sketch of the suspect who turned out to be Tim McVeigh failed to match media expectations of what a terrorist looks like.

Even when journalists did not explicitly attribute the bombing, without evidence, to sinister Middle Easterners, the story was still almost always framed by the assumption that the blast was a foreign attack aimed at the people of the United States. “The tragedy in Oklahoma City must remind Americans of the obvious but insufficiently stressed reality that the end of the Cold War did not end the dangers that Americans face from their collective involvement in the world,” columnist Jim Hoagland wrote in the Washington Post (4/21/95).

“Who would have thought that terrorism would reach so far into the nation’s heartland?” asked the Christian Science Monitor (4/21/95). Who would have thought so many journalists would ignore the possibility that terrorism could originate from the heartland?

The release of the “John Doe” sketches, which bore little resemblance to the popular idea of Middle Eastern terrorists, seemed to be something of a letdown for some journalists. On Day One (4/20/95), ABC‘s McWethy lamely tried to explain why reporters like himself had jumped on the Arab bomber bandwagon:

I would say that the evidence has led the journalists to certain preliminary conclusions and then that the evidence has led us to additional conclusions that are away from the direction that the FBI was headed, at least in the first 24 hours.

Many in the media seemed to have a hard time giving up on the idea of Muslim terrorists. “The possibility of Middle East terrorism is still high on many lists,” CBS‘s Stewart reported after the sketches were released (4/20/95). “It is easy to perform such attacks on America.” CNN‘s Wolf Blitzer insisted (4/20/95):

There is still a possibility that there could have been some sort of connection to Middle East terrorism. One law-enforcement source tells me that there’s a possibility that they may have been contracted out as freelancers to go out and rent this truck that was used in this bombing and perhaps may not even have known what was involved.

John McLaughlin seemed reluctant to change the script for his McLaughlin Group (4/21/95), focusing the show around questions like, “Even if Oklahoma proves to be wholly the work of domestic terrorists, will it become a wake-up call for the need to focus on international terrorism, conventional and possibly nuclear?”

Unreliable Sources

How did the media get the story so wrong? One pitfall that most news outlets fell into was a reliance on unnamed government sources—publishing tenuous leads, rumors and speculation from officials who were afraid to attach their names to such flimsy information. “According to a government source, it has Middle East terrorism written all over it,” said CBS‘s Connie Chung (4/19/95). Her colleague Anthony Mason followed up: “Sources tell CBS News that unofficially the FBI is treating this as a Middle East-related incident.”

“It does appear to have, once again, according to an official, the signature of a Middle East kind of car-bombing,” Blitzer said on CNN (4/20/94).

Like dogs chasing their own tails, journalists picked up on sketchy reports of people who had been questioned solely on the basis of their ethnicity—two Pakistanis who happened to be driving through Oklahoma, a Jordanian-American flying overseas to visit his family—and used these as the basis for rampant speculation about who was responsible for the attack.

A big media failing was the reliance on a small group of self-proclaimed “terrorism experts.” (See page 8.) Often these analysts were professional cold warriors left high and dry by the collapse of Communism, who have latched onto the Islamic menace as the new threat to Western civilization.

The Christian Science Monitor‘s second-day article (4/21/95) featured a whole slew of sources from the right-wing anti-terrorism industry, including representatives of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Rand Corporation, the Heritage Foundation and the National Strategy Information Center. No wonder that no one challenged the idea that terrorism was primarily a foreign threat—or that the solution, in the words of one “expert,” was “more money for law enforcement!”

The parade of retired spies and self-appointed terrorism analysts—many of whom come from government agencies that have been involved in activities that would be called “terrorism” under any reasonable definition—usually offered wisdom of dubious worth, such as this comment by former CIA official Donald Jameson (CNN, 4/20/95): “It’s clear, I think, that there must almost certainly to have been a foreign origin to this, and probably one in the Middle East, although, of course, I have no facts to confirm that yet”

Knee-Jerk Tendencies

But these sources and “experts” only exacerbated the mainstream media’s own knee-jerk tendencies. It begins with simple stereotyping: You say bombing, they say Muslim. Here’s the New York Times (4/20/95) explaining why it was likely that international terrorists had struck in Oklahoma City: “Some Middle Eastern groups have held meetings there, and the city is home to at least three mosques.” Is it any wonder that mosques become targets of vandalism and other hate crimes when papers like the Times treat them as evidence of terrorism?

“You do have a sizable Arab population in Oklahoma,” said CNN’s Charles Bierbauer (4/20/95). “You have most unpredictable pockets. . . . Things you would not expect but you should be alert to.” One would think that CNN‘s senior Washington correspondent would be “alert to” the irresponsibility of warning his audience against entire ethnic groups.

NPR‘s Daniel Zwerdling suggested that such prejudices were entirely appropriate. “Aren’t some of the public’s fears of people from some ethnic groups grounded, to at least a certain extent, in some social realities?” he said on All Things Considered (4/22/95). “For instance, isn’t it true that many terrorist incidents in recent years have been associated with people from Middle Eastern political and religious groups?”

For years, mainstream news outlets have presented terrorism in terms familiar from Hollywood thrillers: The terrorists are the foreign villains, who are motivated by their irrational hatred of the “West” in general and the United States in particular. Terrorism that fits into this framework—particularly acts committed by Palestinian nationalists—has received intensive media coverage. Similar actions conducted by U.S. citizens, or by forces that have the backing of the U.S. government, have rarely been labeled as terrorism, and were often simply ignored.

New York Times TV critic Walter Goodman criticized network coverage for rushing to judgment on the Oklahoma bombing (4/28/95). But he ended up praising TV:

For all its famous deficiencies in reporting the news or, as we saw last week, in reporting it straight, when it comes to an event that is as painful, baffling and threatening as the Oklahoma City bombing, television has a way of getting itself together and bringing us together.

Of course, the TV journalists and pundits who leaped to the conclusion that “Middle Eastern terrorists” were behind the Oklahoma City bombing did not “bring us together”—they divided the majority against a vulnerable minority, on the flimsiest of speculations. But Goodman’s column highlights what he suggests is TVs “most important mission”—creating a (false) sense that its audience is one homogeneous mass, often by hyping a foreign (or foreign-seeming) enemy.

Domestic terrorism fits less easily into the “us against them” framework that media love to exploit—especially when “they” make use of the same kind of patriotic rhetoric (America is being invaded, force is the key to defending our freedoms) that media typically use to adorn their terrorism coverage.

Selective Memories

To force the Oklahoma City bombing into the pre-scripted framework of “international terrorism” and “Islamic fundamentalism,” journalists had to ignore most of what is known about the history of terrorism both internationally and in this country.

Consider a chart that the Los Angeles Times ran on April 21, under the heading “Terror in Oklahoma City.” On the left it listed “Terror Indictments,” which indicated that out of the 171 people indicted in the U.S. for “terrorism and related activities” in the 1980s, only 11 were connected to Arab groups—6 percent of the total. (Seventy-seven percent of the suspects were U.S.-based.) Yet on the right side of the chart, under “Terrorist Group Profiles,” only four organizations were featured—all of them Arab groups.

Likewise, the Washington Post‘s day-after coverage (4/20/95) included a box labeled “Terrorist Attacks Against U.S. Targets.” The only incidents listed were all attributed to Arab groups.

This kind of selective memory was endemic in the initial speculation after the Oklahoma bombing. Any number of experts claimed that the use of a car bomb obviously pointed to “Middle Eastern terrorists”—although the car bomb is a standard terrorist tool around the world, used by Colombian drug cartels, the IRA, Basque separatists and even, on occasion, U.S. and Israeli covert operatives (Bob Woodward, Veil; Ian Black and Benny Morris, Israel’s Secret Wars). (“Middle Eastern terrorists” was a ubiquitous euphemism for Arabs, not a reference to Israelis.)

Analysts often made much of the physical resemblance between the Murrah office building and the bombed U.S. embassy in Beirut, although just about any mid-rise office building with its front wall removed will look pretty similar. The bombings at the Beirut embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks there actually used a very different technique: Those truck bombs were driven into the buildings by suicide bombers, rather than being parked outside; the explosive used in Beirut was dynamite, not fertilizer.

The Waco Connection

After the bombing, journalists kept asking why terrorists would go all the way to Oklahoma City to blow up a building. The obvious answer—that perhaps the terrorists did not have so far to come—seemed not to occur to most media observers.

It’s worth noting that not everyone was oblivious to the possibility of domestic terrorism. Inter Press Service, in particular, put a prescient news analysis out over its wires on the day of the bombing (4/19/95), warning against leaping to the conclusion that the bombing had origins in the Mideast. Reporter Yvette Collymore quoted analyst Daniel Junas: “Given the fact that it is the second anniversary of Waco and given that we have a national militia movement largely inspired by Waco, we have to ask whether or not the blast is related.”

The New York Times did raise the possibility of Waco-linked domestic terrorism in its lead story the day after the bombing (4/20/95)—but then dismissed the possibility: “Other officials said that neither the Branch Davidians nor right-wing ‘militia’ groups that have protested the handling of the Davidians were believed to have the technical expertise to engage in bombings like the one today.”

This dismissal was particularly ironic, given that just across the page was an article headlined, “Tools of a Terrorist: Everywhere for Everyone.” Of the ammonium nitrate bomb, the Times‘ Joseph Treaster noted:

The ingredients can be mixed in a lethal brew by almost anyone, the experts said, guided by instructions that are published in hundreds of handbooks as well as on the Internet, and with equipment that is no more sophisticated than a kitchen blender.

After the arrest of McVeigh, the Times remembered that most acts of terrorism in the U.S. are committed by U.S. citizens. “Of the six major previous bombings in the United States,” Serge Schmemann noted (4/24/95), “all but one were committed by Americans.”

Eleven days after the blast (4/30/95), the New York Times published information from the monitoring group Klanwatch that showed just how dangerous far-right paramilitary groups have become: “In 1993 alone . . . law-enforcement agencies discovered six weapons arsenals and 13 explosives arsenals tied to right-wing groups that apparently were planning bombings.” If the Times and other leading news outlets had been consistently doing their jobs by covering such threats to public safety, the nation might not have been taken by surprise by the Oklahoma blast (and law enforcement might even have been alert enough to prevent it).

Movement in the Dark

But, in fact, the militia movement arose with almost no attention from the papers of record. The Times ran one full-length article on the militias (11/14/ 94); the Washington Post (3/27/94) ran a cutesy, 300-word item on “gun-packing Montanans” who were forming militia groups. That article closed with a county sheriff asserting that the Brady Bill “ain’t worth spit.”

A few regional papers, including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, did a better job. But some local coverage read like recruiting brochures for the militias, including a San Francisco Chronicle article (3/12/95) that described a militia leader as looking like “a kindly grandfather” and painted the militias as organizations that “engage in voter registration drives, or assist local law enforcement agencies in flood relief efforts.”

“Although watchdog groups that track extremist organizations suggest the militia movement is linked to dangerous right-wing ideologues, they offer little supporting evidence,” Chronicle reporter Bill Wallace stated.

If Wallace wanted proof of the militia movement’s connection to dangerous ideologues, he might have read Klanwatch Intelligence Report’s December 1994 issue, which profiled some leading figures in the movement. Leaders like John Trochmann, founder of the Militias of Montana, who was a featured speaker at the 1990 Aryan Nations World Conference. Or Rev. Pete Peters, host of a widely heard shortwave radio show, who says that “the Caucasian people who settled America” are God’s chosen people, and that the Bible mandates the death penalty for homosexuality. Or Martin “Red” Beckman, identified by U.S. News & World Report (8/15/94) as “one of the most influential people in the [militia] movement,” who has called the Nazi Holocaust “a judgment upon a people who believe Satan is their God.”

And if reporters wanted evidence that some militia members were ready to put their incendiary rhetoric into action, they might have examined the case of Francisco Duran, the man who was convicted of trying to assassinate President Clinton by firing a semi-automatic weapon at the White House. As Leslie Jorgensen and Sherry Keene-Osborn reported in the Colorado weekly Westword (12/14/94), Duran belonged to groups like the Save America Militia in Calhan, Colo., and was an avid reader of militia literature. Duran’s brother-in-law, Jose Guttierez, says Duran’s assault on the White House was inspired in part by militia leader Linda Thompson’s call for an armed march on Washington.

But the fact that Duran was involved with a well-armed, organized anti-government movement—which may have supported his action, Westword suggested—was virtually ignored in coverage of Duran’s arrest. In the New York Times‘ spectrum of possibilities (4/5/ 95), Duran was either a paranoid schizophrenic convinced that an “evil mist” was surrounding the White House, or else a disgruntled ex-G.I. out to avenge a military drunk-driving conviction. In the Washington Post (4/5/95), he “simply wanted to be famous.” Neither paper mentioned his militia ties.

What If . . .

Although most mainstream news outlets had woefully undercovered the militia movement, some did break important ground in playing catch-up. (Earlier in-depth coverage of the militias was available from alternative publications like Covert Action Quarterly—Spring/95—and Detroit’s Metro Times—10/12/94.) But there was an oddly muted tone to much of the mainstream coverage—as if the wind had been taken out of the media’s sails when they discovered that they didn’t have a new international terrorist menace to rail against.

It’s worthwhile to imagine what the coverage would have been like if the bomb had turned out to have been planted by Arab immigrants. Would we have had Ted Koppel holding a town meeting in a radical mosque, reassuring the angrily anti-American imam there that “I did promise you you would have a chance to say anything you want”—as Koppel in fact did say to an extremist Michigan Militia leader at a Decker, Mich. town meeting (Nightline, 4/25/95)?

Would CNN have run a lengthy segment interviewing three members of Hamas, allowing them to disclaim any responsibility for the bombing while getting an international audience for their anti-Zionist views—all without any rebuttal? That’s the kind of platform that the network gave to Arizona’s Patriots United (5/7/95).

Would the killings of dozens of U.S. civilians by Hezbollah have prompted in-depth investigations of the terrorists’ pet causes? Would the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour have taken another look at the massacres of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatilla, say, as readily as it reopened the issue of Waco (5/17/95)?

The answers to all these questions are obvious. If the bombers were Arabs, the inquiry into their motives would have gone about as deep as it did in this New York Times editorial (4/24/95): “The early theory that the bombing might be the work of terrorists from abroad, possibly Islamic radicals bent on punishing or frightening the Great Satan, is thus fading.”

But when the bombing suspects are conservative white men from Middle America—who look like “us,” as “us” is defined by media decision-makers—then there must be a search for understanding. This search at times shaded into a glossing-over of the most frightening aspects of the militias.

‘Greatest Coldbloodedness’

Take the M.O.D. Training Manuals, a series of handbooks on guerrilla warfare distributed by the influential Militias of Montana, and bearing that group’s name and address on their front page. The manuals advocate “the placement of a bomb or fire explosion of great destructive power, which is capable of effecting irreparable loss against the enemy. . . . It is an action the urban guerrilla must execute with the greatest coldbloodedness.” It also names “public offices” and “centers of government services” as “easy targets of sabotage.”

The books advise that

kidnapping of personalities who are known artists, sports figures or are outstanding in some other field . . .can be a useful form of propaganda for the revolutionary and patriot principles, provided the kidnapping is handled so that the public sympathizes with it.

This is not some obscure group that is putting its name on and distributing a terror manual; the Militias of Montana are widely credited with being the most influential group in inspiring the nationwide militia movement Yet the M.O.D. Training Manuals have hardly been mentioned in media coverage; Keith Schneider reported on them in the April 29 New York Times, but no other reporter in the hundreds of periodicals listed in the Nexis database followed up on his story.

While the immediate commentary after the bombing stressed how frightened we ought to be by the Islamic menace, much of the discussion after the true suspects were named centered on how militias were no big worry.

“Has the level of anarchy in this country reached such a point that it’s equitable to the anarchy and the willingness to perpetrate it of Islamic radicals?” John McLaughlin asked on his McLaughlin Group (4/21/95). Morton Kondracke responded that the real menace still came from those Arabs:

In the first place, these right-wing radicals are not as well-organized, they’re not as numerous, they have not up to now been as sophisticated. They’ve been isolated on the fringe. You know, the Islamic terrorists have been conducting active terror all over the world. . . . They’re active in Paris and London and, you know, wherever.

Laird Wilcox, a frequent commentator on extremist political movements, wrote an op-ed for New York Newsday (4/27/95) asserting that the militias are less to be feared than “urban gangs,” since gang members are typically “young unattached males with no jobs, property or prospects”—”the most crime- and violence-prone segment of society”—while militia members are usually “working and lower-middle class males aged 30 to 50, with wives, jobs, homes and kids in school,” and therefore “not a crime-producing segment of society.”

Since the logic of this is so transparently fallacious—after all, the Boy Scouts are made up mainly of young unattached males without jobs, whereas Mafia hitmen are mainly working-class, middle-aged married men—one wonders if Wilcox was trying to suggest a simpler point here: The militias are not to be feared because they’re white.

The color of militia members certainly has a bearing on the way they are covered by mainstream media. Can one imagine thousands of black militants acquiring high-powered weaponry, openly drilling in paramilitary units, and announcing for all to hear that sooner or later they would likely have to use their weapons against the U.S. government in order to regain their Constitutional rights—and the news media largely ignoring them?

Deep Roots

News reports should not be telling people that every member of the militia is dangerous. But it is dangerous to downplay the seriousness of a highly armed movement that has made clear its willingness to use force.

A front-page New York Times article by Peter Applebome (5/7/95), headlined “Anger of the ’60s Takes Root in the Violent Right,” traced the violence of the militia movement back to anti-establishment youth rebellion in the 1960s. “Vietnam War-era turmoil tore a hole in the post-World War II social fabric,” Applebome wrote, “and that although it was the left that opened the rift, it is the right that has driven a truck through it.”

Such arguments show a striking lack of historical perspective: Rather than emerging from the ashes of the Vietnam War era, right-wing violence and anti-government paranoia both predate the ’60s. It was the ’50s that saw the rise of both the conspiratorial right, led by the John Birch Society, and the modern white supremacist movement, in the form of violent anti-civil rights groups like the White Citizens Councils, National States Rights Party and the re-energized Ku Klux Klans.

The Birchers still have much the same paranoid worldview that they did 40 years ago—and are today a key ideological adjunct to the militia movement. The white supremacists of the ’50s can be traced through various armed right movements to violent anti-government organizations like the Posse Comitatus and Christian Identity groups—the immediate progenitors of the militias.

But it’s easier for mainstream media to treat the militia movement as though it were a brand new phenomenon, without historical precedent. To acknowledge that the movement has deep roots is to admit that terrorism is not just a foreign threat—but is often something that grows from within.