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Oklahoma City Exposes the Origins of Today’s White Nationalism

Barak Goodman's documentary about an act of American terrorism is sadly resonant.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Richard Jay Mathews, leader of the early 1980’s white supremacist terrorist organization “The Order,” saw multiculturalism as a scourge. The dystopian future he imagined, he wrote in a letter shortly before his death, was one where his son “would be a stranger in his own land, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan in a country populated mainly by Mexicans, mulattoes, blacks, and Asians.” This troubled Mathews so much that his group advocated for an entirely white region through mass extermination. As in Nazi Germany or the mythical 1850s North Carolina in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, The Order wanted to get rid of all non-whites in the Pacific Northwest.

Responsible for numerous robberies as well as the religiously-inspired murder of Denver radio personality Alan Berg, The Order was the loose inspiration for the 1988 Costa-Gavras film Betrayed, in which an FBI agent is sent to investigate a midwestern farmer (played by Tom Berenger) for the murder of a prominent Jewish radio host. They called the creed they subscribed to the “Northwest Territorial Imperative.” A concept popular amongst white nationalists, the Imperative sought to make the five-state region of Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Wyoming and Western Montana into a “White American Bastion.” The group was ultimately destroyed in a series of federal round-ups and raids, which led to 75 convictions; Mathews himself was shot dead in his burning home during a standoff that found echoes in the infamous Waco siege a decade later. When The Order was in its heyday one could count the number of armed white supremacist groups in America on two hands. Now, there are at least 600.

In Oklahoma City, Barak Goodman’s exhaustively-researched new movie, this history is just a tiny sliver of the background to the worst act of homegrown terrorism this country has ever seen. On April 19, 1995, former soldier Timothy McVeigh—a lifelong mediocrity who had grown up in the lily-white suburbs of Buffalo, New York—parked a Ryder truck containing a five ton fertilizer bomb in front of the Edward P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh lit a fuse and fled to a getaway car he had stashed several blocks away. Unfortunately for McVeigh, the car didn’t have license plates on it and he was arrested after a routine traffic stop for a completely unrelated and far less serious crime. One of the dozens of shocking details Goodman’s movie reveals is how close McVeigh was to being released before the FBI tracked him down at the nearby jail with questions about his involvement in the bombing.

There is a grisly timeliness to Oklahoma City’s release now, when the far right is at a turning point. Revisiting this story of homegrown American terror feels as zeitgeisty as both of 2016’s televised accounts of the O.J. Simpson tragedy did. Are there more Richard Jay Mathewses lurking out there in the American night, emboldened by a political moment when their views are receiving broader mainstream media coverage and are tacitly embraced in the corridors of power? Or will they find themselves cast out into the fringes of American society, to strike at the system in the vicious, subterranean ways our leaders like to associate with Islamic extremists?

Oklahoma City makes clear that McVeigh’s actions did not occur in a vacuum: He had a whole tradition of white supremacist thought to draw upon. He was inspired by William Luther Pierce’s 1978 futuristic white nationalist novel The Turner Diaries, which depicts a right-wing insurrection against a tyrannical, overreaching government that devolves into a nuclear tinged race war in which Jews, gays and non-whites are done away with. McVeigh was outraged by the events at Ruby Ridge and even more so by the Waco Siege—which occurred on the same date two years prior to the Oklahoma City bombing. McVeigh deliberately planned his bombing to take place on this anniversary, as an act of retribution against the U.S. government.

While Oklahoma City’s narrative is anchored around McVeigh’s actions and the depth of his collaboration with his military buddy Terry Nichols and a third accomplice, Michael Fortier, the movie also dedicates significant time to the explaining the rapid growth of the larger white nationalist scene from the early 1980s to today. Goodman switches between the narratives deftly: The movie progresses chronologically through major flashpoints in the history of vanguard white extremism, while interspersing accounts from the Oklahoma City bombing’s immediate aftermath and investigation. We hear from first responders, investigators, journalists, and parents of children trapped in the first floor daycare center, as well as those who later witnessed McVeigh’s testimony, jailing, and death.

Goodman’s film doesn’t reinvent any wheels, employing conventions such as talking heads and archival footage like thousands of sober minded PBS documentaries before it. Nor does the movie reveal much about McVeigh’s motive, background, or temperament that readers of Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck’s exhaustive 2001 authorized biography American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh & The Oklahoma City Bombing haven’t already encountered. But, its cumulative impact surpasses what you would expect from your typical Frontline or American Experience production, and colors in the rest of the white supremacist hierarchy in a terrifying and informative manner. Oklahoma City shows the depths some will go to preserve the troubling notion that whiteness is the only meaningful factor in determining a person’s right to citizenship and right to life. There is a real constituency for armed sedition in this country, this documentary reminds us—from Oregon, where Ammon Bundy led a standoff at the Malheur Refuge last year, to Kentucky, where a governor insinuated, before the election, that if Hillary Clinton won, there could be a need for bloodshed.

A lot of this hostile activity has its roots in the Ruby Ridge standoff of 1992, which, in Goodman’s telling, was a definitive example of federal overreach that galvanized the extreme right. Members of the ATF essentially entrapped Randy Weaver, who they believed was associated with the Aryan Nations, for illegal firearm sales, in order to coerce him into providing information about the group. (Weaver was known to consort with the Aryan Nations, but he claimed that he wasn’t a member.) U.S. Marshals encircled Weaver’s mountaintop cabin and provoked a firefight; after a ten-day standoff, Weaver’s wife, one of his children, and a U.S. Marshal were left dead. The incident was among McVeigh’s primary motivating factors: He traveled to gun shows around America for months after the raid, handing out postcards with the name and address of the sniper who killed Vicki Weaver on it, hoping to find a white man who would go and take revenge.

The factions McVeigh represents, however marginalized they may be, continue to be a major bulwark of support for the newly inaugurated president, who is quicker to insult John Lewis than to cast off the affections of David Duke. While Steve Bannon sits in the White House plotting strategy and Milo Yiannopoulos eats out on his seven-figure book deal, we’d do well to consider just how we got here.

The ideology that propelled Mathews, for instance, has never been actively snuffed out by white institutions or cultural mores. Of course, most whites don’t feel the need to defend themselves, grouping themselves by racial identity and mobilizing around that identity, in the way these men do. But in not confronting white nationalists directly as potential terrorists and seditionists, “white America” has not finished the work of reconstruction, let alone the Civil Rights movements.

It doesn’t seem like we’re any closer to weeding out this sort of thinking. Even on a civic level, our cities seem fine condoning all sorts of the symbolically ugly detritus of our nation’s racist past, protecting such expressions as “free speech.” The Confederate flag still hangs over many a southern state house. In Memphis, blocks from the Lorraine Hotel you can drive down a major thoroughfare on Martin Luther King Day and pass a statue proudly depicting the founder of the Ku Klux Klan on horseback. As significant gaps in wealth and life expectancy remain between blacks and whites, our perceptions of what ails our country widen by the year; only 22% of whites feel blacks are treated less fairly in the workplace, compared to 64% of blacks. These types of perception gaps persist in every area of modern racial contention, from housing policy to the need for reparations. So it should come as no surprise that among white Americans who feel threatened, the sentiments expressed in Oklahoma City are more widely held than most of us would like to believe.