OKLAHOMA CITY — We treat hate these days as something benign. Presidential candidates and their legions of supporters defend hatred as preferable to “political correctness,” whatever that is, as if those were the only alternatives. The dangers we face all look and dress differently and speak with accents, so it’s shrugged off as OK to fear and hate those who look and dress and speak differently.
Walk through the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, and you remember how hateful our own can be. If you ever forgot. I haven’t. I can’t.
I was here in the aftermath of Timothy McVeigh’s and Terry Nichols’ hate crime. I felt the grit and grief that filled the air still days after their bomb devastated this city. I interviewed spouses and siblings and parents of the Americans killed by American terrorists on April 19, 1995. I walked through the museum and the outdoor memorial this week for a second time. My first visit was in 2001, shortly after the museum opened. I am back for a conference of student media managers.
The first time I visited, the killer received scant attention. McVeigh’s trial was under way and Nichols had not yet been tried. The museum focused on the devastation, on remembering the dead, on the rescue and recovery attempt, on healing and peace. Nearly 20 years later, the museum is still outstanding and still does those things. But it also tells the stories, in a frank and necessary way, of the investigation, arrests, trials and sentences.
I have not yet visited the 9/11 Memorial, though I will make time for it on my next visit to New York. Both places necessarily honor the dead and are important tributes for Americans to visit. But Oklahoma City feels more important, more necessary, to me. We don’t need help fearing foreigners. But this memorial and museum remind us how malignant homegrown hate can be.
This attack, 21 years ago, must seem distant to students I teach today who were born after that blast. But they have read and seen news coverage of other hate-inspired attacks on theaters, churches, family-planning services, college campuses, even an elementary school.
Perhaps I seem inconsistent, advocating that news media not name attention-seeking mass killers, but expressing appreciation for a museum that names America’s most heinous murderer and posting his photo, and a newspaper with his photo, atop this blog post. But McVeigh tried to get away with his crime. He wasn’t seeking attention for himself, only to kill innocent people and terrorize others. I think his capacity for hatred must be remembered.
A peaceful outdoor memorial honors Oklahoma City’s dead with a chair for each, positioned to represent where they were in the building, smaller chairs for each of the children killed. Walls at opposite ends of a reflecting pool say 9:01, the time McVeigh drove a rented truck up in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, and 9:03, the moment he detonated the bomb.
An opening display of the museum sets the scene, showing and telling you what Oklahoma City was like as morning began on April 19, 1995. A hearing on a groundwater permit started precisely on time at 9 in the Water Resources Board, across the street from the Murrah Building.
Visitors to the museum are ushered into a small room, where you hear a recording of the opening of the meeting. The bureaucratic chatter at the outset is mind-numbingly routine. Then you hear the explosion, the sound of hate. The sound of two Americans killing 168 Americans because of how much they hate America.
Displays throughout the museum are riveting, telling the stories of that horrific day and its aftermath. The most moving displays honor the dead: bureaucrats honorably serving their country, citizens coming to be served, children playing in a day care center while their parents worked.
Other displays tell the stories of the terrorists consumed by hate: McVeigh, who drove and detonated the truck bomb that destroyed the Murrah Building, and Nichols, who helped McVeigh make the bomb. Looking at the preserved rubble in the exhibits and at the cold eyes of McVeigh, you vow again never to forget: This is hate. It’s not always this evil, but it’s never benign, and this is its potential.
My Omaha World-Herald stories from Oklahoma City
My 2015 post about lessons learned from my time at the Omaha World-Herald, including in my coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing.