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The Oklahoma City Bombing: What the Tragedy Really Reveals about America

By Cheryl Seal (cherylseal@hotmail.com)

The death of Timothy McVeigh-- in fact the entire Oklahoma bombing incident - hit nerves around the world. To most Americans, McVeigh was the embodiment of terrorism come home to roost. For most Europeans (and many Americans) he represented the ultimate futility of the vengeance extracted by the death penalty. But I myself feel that the significance of the tragedy reaches much farther into America’s soul. The McVeigh case is, like the phenomenon of the astounding number of votes cast for a man as destructive as G. W. Bush, a symptom of a deeper, more intractable problem - that of self-absorption. We have become a people so isolated from the rest of the world and its woes that we are now becoming isolated from reality as well. We have become obsessed with our own fantasy of who we are, a nation transfixed by its own navel.

How many times have your heard the line “We must protect American lives"- as if American lives held some special value far above that of British, Nicauraguan, Chinese, Indonesian, French, or any other nation’s lives? We no longer rank the severity of military confrontations such as Bosnia in terms of general losses- we rank them according to the loss of American lives. Our reaction to the Oklahoma bombing revealed much about our national mind set. We were outraged - rightfully so - and coverage of the event, its aftermath, politically and legally and in the lives of the families and friends of victims, went on for months. It is still ongoing. Timothy McVeigh grew in stature in the public’s imagination from a troubled young man into an ultimately evil Anti-Christ. Why? He took AMERICAN LIVES, and on a scale we had never before experienced through such an attack. Every face of every victim was shown in magazines, on shrine-like mourning walls, in churches and schools...a monument was built in record time to commemorate the event. In short, we felt the full horror of terrorism, we felt the full weight of grief and helplessness. The problem is, we seem unable to transfer that “shock of recognition” of suffering to the suffering of others beyond our own borders.

Where are the photo-covered walls, the teddy-bear-stuffed fences, and flower-strewn sidewalks for the over 220 people killed in the embassy bombing in Kenya? For the 2.5 million people killed in civil wars in Rwanda? For the hundreds of poor farmers in South America killed in the crossfire of the drug wars? For the hundreds of people killed by terrorists during the conflict in northern Ireland? For the 23 people each and every day who are blown to bits when they step on landmines planted by terrorists? We are appalled by these things when we see them on television or in the newspaper, but we do not really seem to connect viscerally. Oh, we may rant about it over a beer or coffee or send donations to the appropriate international fund. But true empathy, judging from the political decisions we continue to make (or at least allow our leaders to make) is absent. The U.S. has still failed to ratify a global ban on land mines, we are the world's number one salesman of high-tech weapons of torture, and Colin Powell recently suggested that our arms sales to other nations need not be linked to the human rights records of the buyers. Worse yet, most Americans do not make it their business to educate themselves about such things. Through our indifference we are accomplices.

It seems that, lulled by the self-satisfaction that comes from a full stomach, full garage, and healthy “portfolio,” we have allowed ourselves to slip into the fog of “us and them" - with "Us" being somehow more real and important than “Them.”

Most of those who voted for Bush saw in him, from a distance, a nostalgic image of America, one as comfortably simple and forthright as a John Wayne western, who represented “law and order” and “God Bless America.” Now we are seeing George Bush close up, bare-faced and full frontal, and the wistful blinders have been ripped from even some of the most conservative eyes. In Bush we are confronted by an awful parody of the worst of ourselves as Americans: a swaggering, platitude-spouting isolationist whose biggest worry is making a buck for himself while he has the chance, while ignoring the needs of everyone else. A “good Christian” with “family values” whose own family appears to be going to hell in a handbasket while he jeopardizes the well-being of all other families with his self-interested economic, military, and environmental policies In short, we see the ultimate ugly American and know that it is not who we want to be.

Timothy McVeigh is as much the victim of the ugly American as he was its number one perpetrator. He was sent to Iraq by Bush, Sr. to fight a vicious little war, purportedly to remove an evil tyrant who threatened the safety of the world. To fight this evil tyrant, the U.S. government battered Iraq with everything it had, killing and maiming an estimated 100,000-plus Iraquis in combat, then causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands more through war’s cruel aftermath. When Timothy McVeigh blew the head off an Iraqui soldier, his comrades cheered him on. When the soldiers came home, the American public, who had watched the government-sanitized coverage on TV day by day as if it were a saveable computer game or soap opera, greeted them with a wild hero’s welcome. The message was overwhelmingly clear: You can bomb the hell out of a place, roll tanks over a nation’s fathers, sons, and brothers, leave an entire country in ruins, cause the slow deaths of countless innocent men, women and children in the aftermath and be proclaimed a hero if you are fighting a “justifiable war" against a “rogue state” or "tyrant." (In fact, we routinely turn nations into enemies - the evil "Them" - simply by labeling them with such buzz words.) When Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrow building, he was acting out his own convoluted, ddisturbed version of the Persian Gulf War as fought by George Bush, Sr. He had identified a "tyrant" and a “rogue state” that threatened the safety of the world - the U.S. government - and he had vowed to batter it with everything he had, even if meant causing the deaths of innocent men, women, and children.

But now Timothy McVeigh has paid the ultimate price for this crime. He was tried and convicted and sentenced to death with angry throngs jeering him at every opportunity. He was strapped down to a table in a tiled cubicle and given a lethal injection while family members of victims stared on, unforgiving. There was no military funeral, no spot at Arlington for McVeigh. But, when Bush, Sr. or Henry Kissinger (unprosecuted author of countless bloody coups) die, though they have caused the violent deaths and unspeakable misery of HUNDREDS of thousands of men, women, and children, they will most likely be buried with full honors unless something changes. The outrageous message here: It is an unforgivable crime for a terrorist to take 168 AMERICAN LIVES but it is no crime at all for a terrorist with political power to take hundreds of thousands of nonAmerican lives.

The point is, the needless violent loss of any life should feel equally horrible and unacceptable to us to us, be it an American in Oklahoma or a villager in Indonesia, be it a wealthy white robbery victim in Bethesda or a young black man caught in a drug deal gone bad in East Baltimore. Until we can see ourselves as part of a whole greater than ourselves, and insist that our leaders - especially the present one - do so as well, we will continue to inflict needless suffering both at home and abroad. As it stands, we are like Dorian Gray, who maintained a superficial appearance of youth and glamorous good looks, while hidden in his attic was a portrait that recorded his true age and growing inner ugliness. Framed in our attic there are now two portraits: George W. Bush and Timothy McVeigh.