An Early Breakthrough
Within an hour of the bombing, the FBI sent teams of investigators to Oklahoma City to crack the case. One important clue came when an agent, searching the streets near the federal building, found a scrap of metal, twisted by the blast. It turned out to be a piece of a truck axle with a vehicle identification number etched upon it. These numbers are placed on auto parts to help identify stolen vehicles. A second important clue came from a bank videotape camera across the street from the federal building. Its tape showed a Ryder rental truck parked in front of the building just before the blast. The FBI traced the truck to a rental company in Junction City, Kansas, some 270 miles from the bombing site.
The truck had been rented two days before the bombing, but the two men who had rented it had used phony identification. Still, the FBI got descriptions and turned them into composite sketches, which they broadcast nationwide. Armed with the drawings, the FBI spread out around Junction City asking questions. At a local motel, the owner identified one of the sketches as Tim McVeigh, a man who had stayed at her motel and checked out the day before the bombing.
Tips from the public also started coming in. A former co-worker of McVeigh's recognized him from the composite sketch. He told the FBI that McVeigh had been in the army and hated the government. McVeigh, according to the informer, was especially angry about the federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. During the siege of the compound, 86 men, and children died, mostly in a fire started by cult members during the final assault. Four federal agents also died. The date of the final assault was especially important. It took place on April 19, two years to the day of the Oklahoma bombing. Investigators began to realize that the bomb had not been set off by foreign fanatics, but by Americans.
Unknown to the FBI at the time, McVeigh was already in custody. A state trooper, spotting no license plates on McVeigh's car, had pulled him over some 60 miles north of Oklahoma City less than 90 minutes after the bombing. Noticing a bulge under McVeigh's jacket, the officer seized a 9-mm pistol hidden there and arrested him. By searching its national database, the FBI discovered McVeigh's whereabouts and took him into custody, just 30 minutes before he was scheduled to be released.
McVeigh's real driver's license offered the FBI another important clue. He gave as his address a farm in Decker, Michigan, owned by James Nichols. FBI agents raided the farm and interviewed neighbors, who claimed Nichols built small bombs and had some connection to extremist groups. Nichols' brother, Terry, an army friend of McVeigh, soon gave himself up to authorities as well. The two brothers were held as material witnesses.
With the arrests, federal prosecutors began building what has been called a "strong circumstantial" case against McVeigh and Terry Nichols.
The Federal Prosecution
On August 10, 1995, some four months after the bombing, federal prosecutors obtained grand jury indictments against McVeigh, Terry Nichols, and a friend who served in the army with them, Michael Fortier. McVeigh and Nichols were charged with one count of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction to kill people and destroy property and one count of using such a device that caused death and injury. They were also charged with malicious destruction of federal property and eight counts of murdering federal law enforcement officers.
Fortier was charged with conspiracy to transport and the transportation of stolen firearms. He was also charged with concealing evidence, making false statements to the FBI, and failing to report the bomb plot to authorities. Fortier pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years and a $200,000 fine. He also became the star witness for the prosecution in the MacVeigh case. Charges were dismissed against James Nichols.
According to prosecutors, all three defendants hated the federal government, and the conspiracy to bomb the federal building began as early as September 13, 1994, when McVeigh and others met in Fortier's trailer in Kingman, Arizona. The prosecutors claimed that McVeigh and Nichols planned the bombing and selected the target and that McVeigh delivered the bomb to the site.
Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols pleaded not guilty to all charges. The defense characterized the prosecutor's proof as a "thin circumstantial case." The defense also argued that the prosecution had the wrong defendants. For example, it pointed to evidence found at the bombing site that it alleged demonstrated that the real bombers died in the blast. The defense also sought to discredit the testimony of Fortier, who claimed no knowledge of the events when first questioned by the FBI. Finally, the defense argued that a fair trial would be impossible in Oklahoma, and as a consequence, the trial was moved to Colorado.
For their part, federal authorities continued investigating to determine if more people were involved.
The Militia Connection
The bombing in Oklahoma and its investigation brought to national attention the existence of the so-called militia movement. Allegations arose that McVeigh had contact with the Michigan Militia Corps, a group that claims 12,000 members. Group representatives say that McVeigh was not a member, and McVeigh denies having attended meetings. For their part, the Michigan militia and other groups deny any connection to the bombing. Still, the defendants and the militia seem to share many similar ideas.
Experts claim that militia groups can be found in more than 30 states and may involve up to 100,000 Americans. Many of the groups hold paramilitary exercises and practice with firearms. Some groups, like the Aryan Nations, the Order, and the Ku Klux Klan, believe in white supremacy and sow hatred against minorities. Others, like the Michigan militia and a larger group called the Unorganized Militia of the United States, disavow racism and anti-semitism.
While it is difficult to characterize such diverse groups, they seem to have certain things in common. All of the groups seem to hate and deeply distrust the federal government. Most of the groups seem to believe the government is involved in some kind of conspiracy to deprive Americans of their liberties. Some believe that the federal government is controlled by Jews who are trying to destroy white Christians. Others believe that the government is part of a multinational conspiracy called The New World Order, which plans to take away American sovereignty. They worry that the United Nations is using foreign military forces to spy on Americans and is plotting to take control.
Almost all of the groups strongly believe that the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment gives Americans the right to own any kind of firearm. They view recent federal gun control legislation, especially the assault weapons ban, as an attack on basic liberty. For this reason, many hate and distrust the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), which is charged with enforcing federal gun laws.
Of particular concern to many militia members, as it was with McVeigh, was the tragic raid at Waco against David Koresh and his followers. Many viewed the raid as mass murder by the U.S. government and a demonstration of how ruthless the ATF had become. Federal authorities, while acknowledging mistakes, argued that the actions were legal and the deaths resulted from the actions of the Davidians.
Another rallying cry of the militias concerned the case of white supremacist Randy Weaver in 1992. During a standoff with authorities, Weaver's wife and teen-aged son were killed as was one FBI agent. Weaver was later acquitted of murder-conspiracy charges, but federal authorities denied any wrongdoing. Still, the government settled a wrongful death case with the family for $3.1 million.
The revelations about the militia movement divided American opinion. Some believe that the militia members are basically law-abiding people who like firearms and maneuvers and are just exercising their constitutional rights. Others view the groups with alarm as armed and dangerous right-wing fanatics who advocate violence and the overthrow of our democratically elected government.
The Political Fall-Out
While virtually all Americans condemned those who bombed the Oklahoma City federal building, opinions differ about what to do about terrorism or the growing militia movement.
Within days of the bombing, President Clinton proposed a bi-partisan effort to strengthen national anti-terrorist laws. In 1995, both Clinton and Dole signed a bill enabling 1,000 more federal anti-terrorist agents and tougher anti-terrorist legislation. This legislation made planning a terrorist act a federal crime, eased restrictions on information gathering by the FBI against suspected terrorist groups, and provided more money for counterterrorism efforts.
While the anti-terrorism bill enjoyed bi-partisan support, the issues raised by the bombing continued to excite controversy. President Clinton made a speech criticizing voices in America that promoted hatred of government and violence against authority. He also argued that such voices encouraged actions like the Oklahoma bombing. His remarks were interpreted as an attack on a number of conservative talk radio shows. Republicans reacted angrily claiming that the president was playing politics with the Oklahoma tragedy and trying to chill free speech.
Soon the Democrats would make similar charges. The Republican-controlled Congress held hearings on the events in Waco. Democrats charged that the hearings were unnecessary and designed only to embarrass the Clinton administration. They also charged that the National Rifle Association had helped Republicans re-open the case. Republicans countered that the hearings' purpose was only to get to the truth and determine whether there had been any government wrongdoing.
The Trials Continue
Only two months after the commencement of his federal trial, the jury sentenced 29 year old Timothy MacVeigh to death by lethal injection. In 1997, Terry Nichols was sentenced to life imprisonment. Both men continue to maintain that they are not guilty of the bombing and have appealed the federal decisions.
Recently, the federal appeals court ruled to release the evidence used in the federal trial to the Oklahoma court. However, the release of this evidence has been delayed in order to give the defense a chance to appeal. As of now, MacVeigh and Nichols are scheduled to be tried in Oklahoma state court for mass murder in August of 2000.
No matter what the results of the various trials, the impact of the Oklahoma City bombing on America will be long lasting. It remains to be seen how it will affect our sense of security or what additional measures will be taken to counter terrorism. It also remains to be seen whether the tragedy that brought Americans together in grief and concern will ultimately drive us apart as we debate the issues it raised. Only one thing is certain. For those who lost loved ones and friends on that terrible April day, life has been changed forever. As the people of Oklahoma City try to heal and rebuild, the rest of us must strive to eliminate violence, hatred, and extremism from the American political scene.
- Why did some people target Arab and Muslim Americans for blame in the bombings?
- What evidence led the FBI to arrest McVeigh and the other defendants?
- What beliefs do militia groups share? Why do they hold these beliefs?
- What political issues arose after the Oklahoma bombing investigation?
- What can individuals and groups do to reduce conflict in American politics?
A C T I V I T Y
A Written Debate
In this activity, class members will prepare brief written position statements on various issues raised in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing and hold a debate on the issues.
1. Have class members select one of the following topics to debate and choose a pro or con position.
A) It was impossible for the defendants in the bombing case to get a fair trial in Oklahoma.
B) States should pass laws making private paramilitary training illegal.
C) Americans should be willing to give up some freedoms to be secure from terrorism.
2. After selecting a topic, write a position statement of no more than one page, pro or con. Provide reasons for your position using examples from the reading, your own ideas, and additional research.
3. Group class members in pro and con groups for each topic. Have members of each group review and critique one another's position statements. Then develop a consensus argument drawing the best ideas from each paper.
4. Hold a class debate on each of the three topics using the consensus positions. Decide which group made the best arguments.