The Oklahoma City National Memorial consists of two stark structures connected by a reflecting pool, intended as monuments to the strength and resiliency of the city. It’s also a contemplative space, where visitors can reflect on and honour the 168 people who died in the April 1995 bombing, carried out by a white power terrorist with ties to a network of like-minded extremists.

Attached to this memorial is a museum, which walks attendees through the events of the day — the rescue efforts and the aftermath — with an unbroken focus on the men, women and children who lost their lives. I hadn’t planned to visit, but I was in Oklahoma City and thought it was an appropriate stop, given the latest outbreak of white power terror, an attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that took the lives of 50 Muslim worshippers and maimed dozens of others. I thought visiting the memorial might help me reflect on the recurring nature of white supremacist violence, at home and abroad.

The museum portion of the memorial is a harrowing experience for visitors who give it their full attention. You can listen to recordings of routine government proceedings that suddenly erupt with the sound of the blast. You can examine debris and watch interviews with survivors. Again and again, you see the faces of those victims. The young children stand out.

The sun rises at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum on April 19, 2015, before the 20th Remembrance Ceremony, the anniversary ceremony for victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Reuters

 

The museum doesn’t avoid either Timothy McVeigh or his chief accomplice, Terry Nichols, who orchestrated the bombing. Visitors are given an almost play-by-play description of McVeigh’s arrest. You can examine his getaway car and watch interviews with the law enforcement officers who captured him. There is a map of the United States showing every location he visited as he prepared his attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. An entire section of the exhibit is devoted to his trial and execution.

But in all of this detail, there is little discussion of McVeigh’s ideology. We learn, briefly, how he was angered by the sieges at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, but those aren’t placed in a larger context of white power activity. We learn that McVeigh read and drew from “The Turner Diaries” — a lurid fantasy of apocalyptic “race war” by neo-Nazi author William Pierce — but we’re left in the dark about his ties to larger networks of white power activists. At one point, McVeigh is described as an antigovernment extremist, but even this obscures the depth of his white supremacist, nativist and anti-Semitic ideology and commitment to revolutionary violence against the state.

It makes sense that a memorial would not want to focus too closely on the perpetrators. But there’s no way to understand McVeigh or his accomplices without looking deeper. As historian Kathleen Belew notes in “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America,” “McVeigh, trained as a combatant by the state, belonged to the white power movement. He acted without orders from movement leaders, but in concert with movement objectives and supported by resistance cell organising.”

That understanding of McVeigh and Nichols as part of a movement with well-defined goals and a theory of action — which itself fits into a history of ideologically driven hate networks — is important if the mission of the Oklahoma City memorial is education as much as remembrance. And in visiting the site and museum, I was troubled by shallow treatment of that context. Are visitors making the connections between past and present? Do they see the relationship between the violence in Oklahoma City and the shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 or the murder of 11 Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018? Do they see McVeigh as a singular threat or as an important antecedent to our present-day white power killers?

In the manifesto he released, the accused Christchurch shooter made frequent references to “white genocide,” the idea that nonwhite immigration and mixed-race relationships constitute a genocidal threat to “white” people. He recites the “14 words” — a white supremacist mantra — and elsewhere posted images of a gun with the number 14 written on it. As Jane Coaston noted in Vox, the term “white genocide” was coined by David Lane, a white supremacist responsible for the murder of a Jewish radio host in 1984. He, like McVeigh, was also inspired by William Pierce. Again, the museum devotes some space to this movement and those ideas — copies of Pierce’s books “Hunter” and “The Turner Diaries” are on display — but they are overshadowed by exhibits that focus on the experience of the bombing and its aftermath.

If visitors aren’t making those connections, they wouldn’t be alone.

President Donald Trump doesn’t see them, and in the wake of the New Zealand attack, he called white power violence a minor problem. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems. It’s certainly a terrible thing.” Of course, it’s in the president’s interest to downplay this activity, given his past equivocation on white supremacist violence and use of white nationalist language.

But you can’t separate the current wave of white power activity from the president’s dark warnings of foreign “invaders” or the pervasive anti-Muslim rhetoric from conservative media personalities or the outright use of white supremacist tropes from a sitting congressperson. Words have weight, and this weight makes targets more vulnerable to all forms of dehumanisation, including those that end in violence.

But this problem goes far deeper than the particular rhetoric of a particular political party. If the United States and other western democracies have a recurring problem with white power and white supremacist violence, it’s because they grow out of habits and assumptions that are still embedded in our societies. The extremists who dream of a white ethno-state aren’t too far removed to the more ordinary people who see no problem with (and even defend) continued segregation of schools and neighbourhoods. The people who target mosques at home are channelling our disregard for Muslim lives abroad. Settler societies built on the removal and extermination of native peoples will produce ideologies that treat those actions as good, even laudatory.

Which is just to say that as we struggle against the forces behind these decades of violence, from Oklahoma City to Christchurch, we must remember that we aren’t fighting with strangers. Instead, we are confronting the very worst of our legacy — wrestling with our own shadows.

© 2019 New York Times News Service

Jamelle Bouieis based in Charlottesville, Virginia and Washington DC. He is a columnist for the New York Times and political analyst for CBS News. He writes about politics, history and culture.

One Response to “The march of white supremacy, from Oklahoma City to Christchurch”

  1. Sukhamaya Bain

    The author has mixed up an anti-government anarchist (Timothy McVeigh) in the USA in 1995 with an anti-immigrant white supremacist (Brenton Tarrant) in New Zealand in 2019.

    His last paragraph applies a lot more generally; we do indeed confront the very worst of our legacy, wrestling with our own shadows, when a horrendous crime is perpetrated by people that we identify with in terms of religion, race, gender, etc.

    Reply

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