‘More than just a crime story’: the Oklahoma City bombing and a rise in domestic terrorism

<span>The Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on 19 April 1995.</span><span>Photograph: HBO</span>
The Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on 19 April 1995.Photograph: HBO

Civil War, director Alex Garland’s imagining of a divided states of America, appears to have touched a nerve, topping the weekend box office. For some cinemagoers, it may offer escapism. But for those who remember a spectacular act of domestic terrorism that struck the heartland a generation ago, it may feel more like destiny.

“Our documentary will help people understand, how could we even get to a place where a commercial movie like Civil War can be released and it’s not sci-fi?” says Marc Levin, director of An American Bombing: The Road to April 19th, an HBO documentary about the growth of anti-government sentiment through the lens of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Related: Civil War is an empty B-movie masquerading as something of substance | Charles Bramesco

“We’ve always kind of believed in American exceptionalism. ‘That can’t happen here. Oh, no, it could happen in Yugoslavia. It can happen in other places but not in the United States of America.’ Making this film has sobered even us up.

An American Bombing tells the story of the single deadliest act of homegrown terrorism against the government in American history. On 19 April 1995 Timothy McVeigh ignited a truck bomb outside the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 children.

The documentary recounts the details of that day, the experiences of survivors and victims’ families, the manhunt for the perpetrators and the key moments of the trials. It also digs into the arc of McVeigh, his struggles after serving in the Gulf war and his association with pro-gun, anti-government groups.

Speaking from Blowback Productions in New York, a framed poster for the film Slam visible above a desk behind him, the white-haired Levin admits via Zoom: “Like many people, I accepted what became the popular narrative that this was a lone bomber, disaffected and alienated.

“I didn’t see any connection to the larger movement. which is a direction we went in with this film. A major thrust is to connect McVeigh and this whole tragedy to this anti-government movement, whether you call it white power, neo-Nazi, skinhead, Christian identity, anti-tax.”

Levin and co-producer Daphne Pinkerson set about joining the dots. The Turner Diaries, published in 1978, became a bible for the anti-government movement, showing how a small group of insurgents can cause an uprising. It inspired McVeigh and, notably, includes a fictional attack by white supremacists on the US Capitol.

The Order, a white supremacist terrorist group, emerged in 1983 and assassinated the Jewish radio talkshow host Alan Berg. Levin continues: “What happened that was unique is that a bunch of radical rightwing different groups that didn’t always communicate with each other all did come together with a common goal, and they declared war on the United States government in 1983, which is during the [Ronald] Reagan era.”

The extremist movement was also forged by a 1980s farm crisis, when thousands of farm operations financially collapsed after producers dealing with low crop prices fell behind on high-interest land and equipment loans. Pinkerson says: “We went back and found out about the farm crisis as an instigating event for a lot of the anti-government sentiment and how white supremacists and antisemites would exploit these legitimate grievances.

“It’s been a slow burn over the past 30 years as the economy has been restructured and factory jobs have been outsourced – whole industries have been outsourced. You have a lot of intersecting movements and anti-government sentiment. It’s overlapping and and creating the situation that we’re in today.”

Related: Oklahoma: the day homegrown terror hit America

Another turning point in McVeigh’s life was his military service in the 1991 Gulf war, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star but also witnessed the horrors of combat. He suffered a nervous breakdown and was probably suffering from PTSD; he also formed a view of America as a bully. Historian Kathleen Belew makes the telling point in the film that the peak recruiting moment for extremism is in the wake of wars.

A regular at gun shows, McVeigh resented Washington’s attempts to restrict firearms, including a ban on automatic weapons. His hatred of the federal government was fuelled by a standoff in the mountains of Ruby Ridge, Idaho, that left a 14-year-old boy, his mother and a federal agent dead, and the government’s raid on the Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco, Texas, that left 76 people dead.

McVeigh picked 19 April for the Oklahoma City bombing because it was the second anniversary of the Waco siege’s end. He parked a rented Ryder truck in front of a downtown federal building; inside it was a bomb made out of a cocktail of agricultural fertiliser, diesel fuel and other chemicals.

McVeigh got out, locked the door and made for his getaway car. He ignited one timed fuse, then another and, at 9.02am, the bomb exploded. A third of the building was reduced to rubble with many floors flattened like pancakes.

As America reeled, Merrick Garland, then a senior justice department official, was sent to Oklahoma City to help manage the law enforcement response. Nearly 30 years later, Garland is attorney general, leading the government’s effort against domestic terrorism and the insurrectionists of January 6.

McVeigh was convicted in 1997 on 11 counts of murder, conspiracy and using a weapon of mass destruction in the explosion. He was sentenced to death and executed by lethal injection in 2001, unchanged by incarceration and showing no sign of remorse.

Levin reflects: He was not insane. I might have thought back then, he was a mad man, just another American crazy but no, he was totally sane. He described all the innocent people that were killed as collateral damage. He went to his own execution saying, I won: 168 for me, one for the government. He knew what he was doing. That haunting line [from one of the interviewees] that he died with his eyes open, meaning he knew what he was dying for and he believed he would be a martyr ultimately.

Indeed, on the film, Kathy Sanders, who lost two grandsons in the bombing, recalls an encounter with the Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler, who began a sermon by saying one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and McVeigh was a great man and martyr for the cause. And Levin notes that a YouTube trailer for An American Bombing has attracted online comments such as “God bless you, Tim”.

Citing two of his interviewees in the film, Levin comments: “In seeing all of this re-emerge now, almost 30 years later, the stunning bottom line, repeated from Kerry Noble [a former domestic terrorist] to President Clinton, is these ideas which seemed so radical and fringe and extreme are now fairly mainstream. You hear the ideas at least and the rhetoric repeated in governor’s mansions, in Congress and even the White House.

“We’re in such a different place in terms of the acceptance of extremism and, in polls at least, the American public’s acceptance that violence can be legitimate in pushing for political change. That inspired us to, say, OK, we’re going to go back and tell this story to a new generation but we’re going to try to put it in this bigger context because it’s more than just a ticktock. It’s more than just a crime story. It has the roots of what we are dealing with now.”

Related: Experts warn of increased risk of US terror attacks by rightwing ‘lone wolf’ actors

The Oklahoma City bombing has been largely eclipsed in the public consciousness by the September 11 attacks; Oklahoma is the only state where it is part of the public school curriculum. But for Levin and Pinkerson, it was a chance to revisit old ghosts. In 1996 they made a film for NBC called Oklahoma City: One Year Later with Bill Moyers. Some of the people they met and interviewed nearly three decades ago reappear in An American Bombing, offering moments of grace.

Sanders found solace in forgiveness, starting a correspondence with McVeigh’s co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, who was sentenced to life in prison and has since expressed repentance. Daniel Coss, a former Oklahoma police officer who found the bodies of Sanders’ grandchildren, was emergency planning specialist for US Capitol police on 6 January 2021.

Bud Welch, whose 23-year-old daughter Julie Marie was killed in the bombing, protested outside the site of McVeigh’s execution and became a global advocate against the death penalty. Bombing survivor Nancy Shaw read McVeigh’s book in an attempt to understand him.

Pinkerson comments: “They all want to know why. Why did this happen? Especially people in these red states, they feel his frustration and they know what it’s like to be characterised in certain ways and not listened to.”

Executive producer Katie Couric helped secure an interview with Bill Clinton. His previous experience as governor of Arkansas, which saw a rise in extremism, meant that unlike others who initially assumed the Oklahoma City bombing must be the work of Islamic militants, he immediately suspected domestic terrorism.

Clinton offers a chilling conclusion about McVeigh and his relevance to a bitterly divided America in 2024. “It doesn’t matter whether he was right about anything or not,” he says in the film. “What matters is he decided he should kill people he didn’t know including little kids. But the words he used, the arguments he made, literally sound like the mainstream today. Like he won.”

Nowhere are the parallels with current political tensions felt more keenly than Oklahoma City itself. A memorial and museum that now stand on the bombing site is one of the state’s most popular destinations for visitors. Gates to the memorial mark the times, 9.01 and 9.03am, with a reflecting pond between them representing 9.02am, the minute the explosion occurred. Empty metal chairs represent each person who died, and the “survivor tree”, a gnarled American elm that withstood the blast, now stands on a small hill and shades the memorial below.

Pinkerson observes: “Everybody I talked to knows where they were that day. From the very young to the older people, it cuts deeply. If you mention it, it’s like it opens up a wound. You can feel it. It’s not like ancient history that’s come and gone and no one talks about it but there’s this beautiful museum. It’s there. It’s pervasive. I feel like it’s right below the surface and that is why they react more deeply to something like January 6. It brings it all up again.

  • An American Bombing premieres on HBO and Max on 16 April and in the UK at a later date