Originally published March 3, 2017. Oklahoma City is now available on Netflix Instant streaming.
Overview: Two violent events mobilized the American far-right in the early 90s and inspired a former solider named Timothy McVeigh to carry out one of the deadliest acts of homegrown terrorism in the nation’s history. PBS; 2017; Not Rated ; 113 minutes.
How We Got There: This documentary-length episode of PBS’s long-running series American Experience painstakingly recounts the events that led to the explosive growth of the white separatist movement in the early- to mid-1990s and connects them directly to the deadly bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Though most have long intuitively understood the basics of the interrelationship between the white separatist movement and homegrown terrorism, this episode traces its path by examining it through the lens of one specific person—Timothy McVeigh—responsible for the bombing that took the lives of 168 people that day spring day in 1995, and injured nearly 700 more.
The episode first aired in February and is available streaming for free in its entirety, but goes offline Monday, March 6—though that’s not the only reason to watch this particular episode with a sense of urgency.
How We Got Here: If you recognize the question “Where was he radicalized?,” popularized for its frequent use as a hashtag on Twitter, than you likely also understand that the question is essentially rhetorical. It is used as an ironic way of questioning the traditional American assumptions about terrorism—that it’s typically imported, usually from a Muslim country, and that American citizens are immune to its pull—and asked when terrorists don’t fit the that mold. It’s been asked of Dylan Roof, James Holmes, and Adam Lanza, for instance. Had the internet been such a prominent fixture in our lives in 1995, it likely would have been asked of Timothy McVeigh, too. A Gulf War veteran from upstate New York who developed an interest in guns, McVeigh found comfort in the routine of the military but washed out before he could reach his full potential. At the same time, two events that the program labels “The Spark” and “The Fire”—Ruby Ridge and the siege at Waco, respectively—served as rallying points for those who felt that the federal government had drastically overstepped in the way these operations were handled. McVeigh was most definitely among them. He’s seen in archival photographs and “heard” in trial transcripts and, while that doesn’t make it any easier to understand his actions, the documentary also functions as a kind of warning– a reminder that while McVeigh may be gone (he was executed for his crimes in 2001), there are many more people, still very much alive, who are being motivated by the same concerns.
Where Do We Go Now: The program documents the discontent of a group of people who felt their way of life was at best being infringed upon and, at worst, eradicated, and shows how their feelings of marginalization led directly to the rise of homegrown terrorism. This is straight ahead reportage, neither sympathetic nor implicitly demonizing—though the footage of the carnage in Oklahoma City and interviews with survivors are emotionally brutal. Despite the title, much of the film is centered on in-depth explanations of the events at Ruby Ridge and Waco, with interviews with reporters, law enforcement and, most interestingly, former members of the Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh. There’s little doubt in the minds of the viewer or those interviewed that these former members were in a cult and very much under the control of Koresh. The program draws many direct, intersecting lines between literal cult leaders like Koresh, those with cultish followings (the white supremacists who flocked to the Ruby Ridge standoff) and the cult of personality (namely the uptick of white supremacy and nationalism) that grew out of the social and cultural upheaval of America in those years. While this documentary has a point of view, it’s constructed so that you reach conclusions on your own. To explain more would ruin the “aha!” experiences this program deftly elicits—whether you lived through these events or are familiarizing yourself with them for the first time.
Overall: Oklahoma City was a wounding of this country. At a time when we were reconsidering what it meant to be American and acutely feeling the absence of leadership, we made ourselves vulnerable. Hate and anger seeped in and festered. We stitched ourselves back together before. Can we do it again? This outstanding documentary doesn’t have the answer, but it does offer up the question once more for our consideration.
For Further Viewing: Watch PBS American Experience: Ruby Ridge
Featured Image: PBS