Timothy McVeigh (1968-2001)

Timothy McVeigh

Timothy McVeigh, FBI mugshot

I agree with Hannah Arendt attaching "banality" to Adolf Eichmann's evil, but I don't want to think about whether banality is a proper label for McVeigh's evil. Let us put that aside.

McVeigh was one of those who believed that the US government was oppressing its citizens. He admired the militia movement, widely considered populous or right-wing, and one might want to categorize his political views as generally Rightist. But let us not leave him as a representative of the Right any more than Lee Harvey Oswald should represent the Left. Only a few crazies on the Right believe in murder, fewer still in mass murder. There was a cocktail of circumstances, a lethal combination, within McVeigh's head that allows us to consider him as something apart.

McVeigh interpreted government actions against David Koresh and company at Waco, Texas as a terrible violation by the government. After his arrest and imprisonment he was to describe the government's action at Waco – ordered by Attorney General Janet Reno – as a tipping point for him. He was to confess that he wept when he watched the showdown at Waco on television. He believed that the government had to be punished and that he should do the punishing. This latter point was his big mistake, and it was egomaniacal.

McVeigh was one of the many who were considered heroes for serving in the First Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm in 1991). According to Wikipedia, "He had been a top-scoring gunner with the 25mm cannon of the Bradley Fighting Vehicles used by the US 1st Infantry Division to which he was assigned." A BBC profile (March 28, 2010) describes McVeigh as having said that the Army taught him how to switch off his emotions. In Iraq, McVeigh killed as a matter of routine from the distance that a 50 caliber machine gun allows. But the actual days of combat for him were one or two.

After Iraq, McVeigh failed to make the grade in the Army's Special Forces that he had wanted join. The reason described by Wikipedia was that he failed to meet physical fitness requirements. Whatever the reason, he must have been disappointed and humiliated. Part of his identity was as a competent soldier. McVeigh then left the army, on December 31, 1991, after 3 years and 7 months of service.

As a civilian he felt lost and bored, while continuing to identify himself as a disciplined military man competent in following the details and discipline required in military operations. He had identified himself as a member of the United State Army, but now he belonged to nothing. He didn't know what he wanted to do with his life. He was not an active member of any church or other community organization. He was without a woman companion or family. He didn't even have a dog. Alone and lost he ran to his grandfather for comfort one winter day, stripped to his waste. McVeigh's imagination was not governed by a sound education – another ingredient in the deadly cocktail. A special program on McVeigh on MSNBC, on 20 April 2010, described him as looking across human history for the commonality of killing for a cause. This commonality was one of his justifications for mass murder. McVeigh was simplistic in not differentiating between his great historical abstraction and the specific deed he was considering. People with just a small amount of philosophical sophistication realize that every specific act requires its own justification. McVeigh's training in philosophy was at the high school level at best, and many emerge from high school without a good understanding of how specifics relate to the abstract. The MSNBC broadcast described McVeigh as taken by Thomas Jefferson's quote,

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.

McVeigh associated his act with the blood spilled for the sake of the revolution against King George III. It appears that he did not fully understand the American Revolution or revolutions in general. The American Revolution drew support across colonial society. It was highly organized and included continental congresses. Political success is a society-wide phenomenon. A few conspirators cannot do it. German communists, despite their number in the year 1919, were not successful in their effort to make revolution because they did not have mass support. McVeigh's plan to punish the US government by bombing the Oklahoma City federal building was destined to be no more than a murderous individual satisfaction. It could not and did not move the country in a direction that he favored.

A scan of McVeigh's thinking finds no awareness of a modern individual's relationship with a democratic state. In the 21st century all of us are members of a state with laws (rules). A part of those laws is the state's monopoly on the use of violence in upholding those laws. In other words, this right to violence, to police and to punish, lies exclusively with the state. If people believe that their government – the state – has become tyrannical and that they cannot vote the tyrants out, they must first organize and become numerically superior to those who support the tyranny. . McVeigh's approach to fighting what he saw as government oppression was the opposite of organization. He had a vision of himself as sophisticated, partly, at least, through military service and combat. But his military service and combat did not leave him with a good amount of political sophistication.

McVeigh described himself as struggling to control his emotions as he drove his rented bomb-laden truck to the Oklahoma City federal building. His reference to emotions included his accepting "collateral damage." We know what he meant by collateral damage: deaths of the innocent. McVeigh mentioned the bombing of Japan during World War II. It is easier to kill people from a distance, from an airplane or even long range with a 50 caliber machine gun, as McVeigh did in Iraq. Many men find it easy to kill from a distance, and bullets make killing at close range easier emotionally than killing with a knife or an axe. McVeigh was perhaps not much different from other men regarding his ability to kill. He probably would not have been able to kill 168 (the number killed from his blast) one at a time, one after the other, with a knife or an axe.

Look at McVeigh's face. It is not the face we associate with a criminal, a crazed killer or a sadistic psychopath. Neither was Ted Bundy's or Adolf Eichmann's when he was a young man. But McVeigh's expression, as he is being booked and photographed is more wide-eyed and vacuous. McVeigh's evil was the product of an ego-driven desire to exercise skills he had acquired in the military and the product of an inadequate education. The uneducated and unsophisticated tend toward demonization, scapegoating and political naivete. McVeigh had the guts to go further than some other anti-government persons would go in actually doing something dramatic with his hostility. He had the guts to actually carry out the operation he had invented, but it was an operation that also required great arrogance, insensitivity and ignorance.

Copyright © 2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.