A new documentary about Timothy McVeigh, including never-before-heard audio of the terrorist, is stirring emotions even before it airs on msnbc to mark the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.
The audio, originally recorded by Buffalo News reporters Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck as part of interviews for the only authorized biography of the bomber, is likely to be received by audiences with mixed reactions.
In his own voice, McVeigh confesses to the bombings and recounts everything from his childhood in Buffalo, his time with the military during the Gulf War, his relationship with conspirator Terry Nichols, to the planning and execution of the attack that killed 168 lives and injured over 500 people.
The documentary, narrated by msnbc’s Rachel Maddow, has already provoked a strong discussion on Maddow’s blog, with viewers concerned that it might incite extremists.
“Some people will say they don’t want to hear anything about Timothy McVeigh and we respect their feelings on that,” says Herbeck. “But others are interested in hearing what made a terrorist tick.”
“[It’s an] oral blueprint of what turned one young man into one of the worst mass-murderers and terrorists in American history,” says Michel.
Michel and Herbeck received similar criticism after publishing the McVeigh biography “American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing” in 2001.
“A few of the victims were outraged by our book, and they went public with their feelings. They felt it was wrong to tell the story of a terrorist,” says Herbeck.
The authors considered releasing the interview audio to another film project at that time, but by then media interest and the national focus had changed in the aftermath of 9/11.
Maddow says she isn’t concerned that McVeigh will come across as a martyr to those who share his anti-government views. “McVeigh is profoundly unsympathetic — even repugnant —on his own terms, you don’t need to work to make him seem that way,” she says. “There’s a huge distance between the hero he is in his own mind, and how basely unheroic he seems to anyone hearing the tapes now. I personally am not a supporter of the death penalty… but hearing him talk, it’s hard not to wish him gone.”
“I was glad when he died. I will never forgive Timothy McVeigh,” says Janie Coverdale in the documentary. Coverdale lost her two grandsons, Aaron, 5, and Elijah, 2, in the building’s day care center.
Jennifer Rodgers, a first responder for the Oklahoma City Police Department in 1995, was interviewed for the documentary. She describes her feelings as “still raw… It just doesn’t seem like it was really that long ago.”
The documentary’s producer, Toby Oppenheimer, realizes he is touching a raw nerve in Oklahoma City and admits it was tough finding survivors to agree to be part of the msnbc film. “They understandably didn’t want to revisit the painful memories,” he says.
Maddow defended that this story is important now, on its own terms. “The Murrah Building bombing is the worst incident of domestic terrorism we’ve ever experienced as a nation,” she says. “ We owe pure remembrance of the date, and commemoration of the lives lost and changed. I think it’s also an appropriate occasion to talk about the threat of domestic terrorism. How strong is the threat now, 15 years after McVeigh? Are we heeding warning signs that may be out there now?”
Former President Bill Clinton, who oversaw the bombing’s recovery efforts and investigation, recently warned that there are frightening parallels between the current political tensions and the anti-government rage that preceded the 1995 attack.
Speaking on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday, he calls the demonization of government “dangerous” and says that some of the rhetoric legitimizes violence. “We can disagree with them [elected officials], we can harshly criticize them. But when we turn them into an object of demonization, we increase the number of threats.”
“There’s no question that the militia movement is on the rise again,” says Michel. “Some of the same factors that caused McVeigh to believe he had become disenfranchised from mainstream society are again in the mix: growing government regulations, lack of employment. Those are things McVeigh would cite if he were alive.”