[This past weekend marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a terrorist attack that occurred on American soil and was perpetrated by attackers who had lived in the US for months if not longer. Whether and how it qualifies as domestic terrorism is a topic I’ll focus on in the weekend post, after AmericanStudying a handful of other domestic terrorist histories and contexts.]
On how to see the Oklahoma City domestic terrorist as a lone wolf, and why not to.
In many ways, Timothy McVeigh’s story and identity would seem to echo those of many other “lone wolf” killers and domestic terrorists. Like Lee Harvey Oswald and others, McVeigh was a military veteran who came unhinged and turned elements of that martial training (and a lifelong obsession with weapons and war) to an act of domestic terror. And like so many of our current crop of mass shooters, McVeigh was a youthful loner with a passion for computers (in his case, specifically for computer programming and hacking) who would eventually find an outlet and encouragement in technological and virtual spaces for his radical perspectives and ideas. Seeing McVeigh as a lone wolf not only seems to fit those and other aspects of his profile, but also in a broader sense helps us see any public shooting (from the assassination of a specific individual to a mass shooting of random people) as at least potentially an act of domestic terrorism. It also reminds us of one of war’s most destructive effects, the further radicalization and destabilization of individuals like McVeigh (who bragged in a documentary about decapitating an Iraqi soldier during the Gulf War).
But there are significant, telling problems with thinking about McVeigh as a lone wolf, or really as an individual actor in any meaningful sense. I don’t just mean the danger of our forgetting how much he was inspired by a prior incident, the 1993 standoff in Waco (TX) between Branch Davidian cult members and federal authorities; although McVeigh did see his domestic terrorist bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City so fully as a response to those earlier histories (which he had partially witnessed, as he traveled to Waco in support of the cult members) that he committed his horrific crime on the two-year anniversary of the Waco standoff’s April 19th concluding events. That’s all true and important to remember, but it’s still fair to say that an individual shooter or terrorist can be inspired by prior events (indeed, almost inevitably is in one way or another) and still ultimately act as individually, as what we might call a “lone wolf.” Nor is McVeigh working with co-conspirators (Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier, both convicted for their roles in planning the bombing) sufficient, as shooters like the Columbine high schoolers can work together and still act as “lone wolves.”
No, I’m thinking instead about the ways that both McVeigh’s perspective and his terrorism paralleled and were linked to broader, hugely influential trends throughout the 1990s. As part of a conspiracy theories series a few years back, I wrote this post on the 90s fears of “black helicopters,” and how those conspiratorial narratives of international threats and takeovers foreshadowed many aspects of our current moment and society. I think it’s fair to say that those legacies have become even clearer in the years since that series, and indeed that in many ways Donald Trump was (if he was any kind of leader at all) the Conspiracy Theorist-in-Chief. The driving force behind those 90s conspiracy theories was the rise of right-wing “militias,” groups of well-armed, white supremacist fanatics who saw themselves as “Patriots” (their most consistent self-identification) already and perhaps always at war with enemies both federal and global. From what I’ve seen, McVeigh did not belong to any of those militias, and I’m not trying to imply any direct association. But the fundamental fact is that his narratives of the U.S. government as an enemy to be opposed with military weapons and tactics (he later admitted that sniper-style shootings would have been even more ideal than a bombing) jibed quite closely with militia perspectives—and with those of mass shooters and domestic terrorists in the 2020s as well.
Next domestic terrorists tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories of domestic terrorism you’d highlight?