The film examines the strains of thought feeding Timothy McVeigh's 1995 bombing of the federal building, which killed 168

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February 07, 2017 03:21 PM

The latest presidential election was awash in anti-government sentiment that often turned virulent. A new documentary airing Tuesday night on PBS shows that this brand of American outrage is nothing new.

Oklahoma Citywhich airs Tuesday on the PBS series American Experience, casts the infamous bombing that killed 168 people and injured 675 others as part of a dark American tradition.

“These sorts of movements have deep roots, very deep roots, in American history,” says Barak Goodman, the award-winning director whose film revisits the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing when a former American soldier and Gulf War veteran, Timothy McVeigh, parked a rented truck carrying a five-ton fertilizer bomb outside of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building before walking away.

Oklahoma City is a dual portrait of the lives lost and the violent governmental conflicts that fueled McVeigh’s rage against the United States.

“The most important thing to understand about Timothy McVeigh is, he did not drop out of the sky,” says Goodman. “He was not a lone actor, in that he came from somewhere, his ideas came from somewhere. We want to trace those ideas back in history.”

“There’s a lot of people, maybe even thousands of people, who at the time shared the same kind of rage and resentment and anger towards the federal government,” he says “Why does this person step out of the crowd? That’s the question.”

“We’re not able to give a definitive answer, but certainly there are clues in McVeigh’s personality that make you understand why it might have been him and not someone else.”

Goodman nods to earlier protest responses such as the 1920’s rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the 1950’s “Red Scare” of McCarthyism, and the 1960’s radical left that emerged from youth, race, class and war divisions.

“This movement is an ongoing, very old aspect of American life,” he says. “It’s not going away, it never has gone away, it just flares up every few decades. Whether we’re seeing that now, I don’t know. No one knows. But it’s something to be aware of.”

Bombing as ‘Seminal Event’ in Understanding Domestic Terrorism

Oklahoma City builds its narrative with a through-line that ties McVeigh’s disgruntled passion to a white-supremacist movement, the rise of anti-government militias, and the deadly standoffs between law enforcement and U.S. citizens at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in which 76 people died in 1993. (The director’s companion film, Ruby Ridge, will air Feb. 14 on PBS.)

In a remarkable image, McVeigh is seen selling bumper stickers outside of the Branch Davidian complex during the 1993 federal siege there. “Fear the Government That Fears Your Gun,” says one.

Timothy McVeigh outside Branch Davidian complex during 1993 federal siege in Waco, Texas.
Courtesy Okahoma City/American Experience Films/PBS

As international religious extremists such as ISIS command the spotlight and U.S. courts are wrestling with President Donald Trump’s order banning travelers from majority-Muslim countries, “law enforcement is aware of the threat of domestic terrorism,”Goodman says. “Oklahoma City was the seminal event in that learning curve. This isn’t new to them. They understand that threat.”

Beyond its examination of the perpetrator, Goodman wants to put a face on the victims that McVeigh’s Oklahoma City attack affected most.

“People think of the federal government as this monolithic thing,” says Goodman. “Who was McVeigh attacking? It was individual human beings, mothers, fathers, grandparents, just trying to do their jobs. The ‘federal government,’ quote unquote, goes on, but these people’s lives were ruined permanently.”

McVeigh was convicted and executed in 2001 for the Oklahoma City bombing. Two others were convicted as conspirators: Terry Nichols is serving 161 life terms without parole; Michael Fortier, sentenced to 12 years, has since been released.

McVeigh’s ‘Lack of Remorse’

Goodman, who began his film two years before the recent presidential election exposed hardening divisions among voters, drew upon some 60 hours of audio interviews conducted while McVeigh was on death row to complete his portrait.

Director Barak Goodman
Courtesy Ben Meadors

“I felt like I got to know him in some weird way,” he says. “He’s quite intelligent, and I think that’s a very common attribute for these kind of terrorists. But he had such an aggrandized view of himself and his destiny. It was so at odds with the reality. He thought of himself as being such a world-changing figure, and yet he was living such a small life.”

Goodman recalls being struck by McVeigh’s “lack of remorse, the way he talked about people as ‘collateral damage,'” he says.

McVeigh’s response to those who objected to his actions was that they should “get over it,” Goodman says. 

McVeigh’s dismissal, Goodman says, “was a chilling thing to hear.”

Oklahoma City airs Tuesday (9 p.m. ET) on PBS.

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