Last week, days after a white supremacist fatally shot six Muslims in a Quebec mosque, White House insiders leaked the Trump administration’s intention to refocus a government counterterrorism program on jihadi violence. This could very well lead to preventable deaths, since domestic terrorism — largely perpetrated by white nationalists and anti-government extremists — has killed nearly twice as many people as attacks by Islamists in the post-9/11 era. The Charleston church massacre is the most prominent recent example of homegrown right-wing terror — a diffuse and relentless movement that includes the Planned Parenthood shooting, the Lafayette movie theater shooting, the occupation of an Oregon national park office, and the thwarted bombing of a Kansas housing complex for Somali immigrants, all just in the last two years.
Much has changed since America’s deadliest domestic terrorism attack: the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, including 19 children. The biggest names in American hate are no longer Waco or Ruby Ridge: now they belong to meme-loving pseudo-celebs best known for getting kicked off of Twitter or punched in the face. The internet has dispersed white, reactionary militancy into frequently warring factions, which generally coalesce around racism, misogyny, homo- and transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Donald Trump, guns, conspiracy theories, and aggression of all kinds. (They’re fun.) But it’s worth getting to know some of the origins of white supremacists' paranoid thinking, since they continue to inform lethal assaults, resistance to gun reform, and abhorrently xenophobic and anti-humanitarian federal policies today.
We all want a revolution. That’s the inescapable fact behind PBS’s Oklahoma City, part of the "American Experience" series. (You can watch it here.) The documentary patiently explains, between footage of a disemboweled government building and bloodied bodies of all ages, how bomber Timothy McVeigh and other white nationalists viewed the world they wanted to destroy. Whiteness, Christianity, freedom, and the Second Amendment were supposedly in danger, and federal law enforcement officers’ involvement in the fatal shootouts at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, were more than enough evidence to confirm their suspicions. The frequently unemployed McVeigh, a veteran who grew disenchanted with federal power after fighting in the Gulf War, fell under the spell of the narrative of white armed men under siege.
Frustratingly, Oklahoma City barely ventures to guess why certain people are so drawn to such a radical, delusional, and ultimately violent ideology — enough of them to create a subculture of thousands of organizations. But through McVeigh’s own words and interviews with counterterrorism experts, the documentary does provide a handy primer on the tenets of an American white supremacist mythology. Director Barak Goodman also takes the Bush I and Clinton administrations to task for helping militants make their fever dreams of bullets-flying martyrdom a self-fulfilling prophecy. Evenhanded in analysis and drab in appearance, Oklahoma City helpfully places a defining American moment in proper historical context.
But the doc’s optimistic conclusion — that the OKC bombing made Americans turn away from right-wing extremism — feels almost Pollyannaish after the past few months. Hate groups have nearly doubled in number from 1999 to 2015, and white nationalists have been emboldened by Trump and Steve Bannon’s rise to the White House. McVeigh is often cited as a classic “lone-wolf” terrorist, but Oklahoma City rightly and forcefully suggests that it’s long overdue for our society to ditch that narrative, especially when decades of ideology and an established canon have justified murdering the innocent in the name of overthrowing the U.S. government or preparing for a race war.
If there’s one clear lesson to be learned from hindsight, it’s that McVeigh’s evil didn’t take place in a vacuum. By labeling him a “lone wolf,” the mainstream media negligently ignored a dangerous movement that has only continued to grow and adapt. The internet has made it a lot easier for white supremacists to find each other and to recruit lost people for radicalization.
But, thankfully, it has also lowered the barriers for ordinary people to educate themselves about the malevolence that has threatened America for decades. That the political spotlight is now aimed at Trump and Bannon means that the credos of those two politicians and their supporters will now face more scrutiny than ever. Now, as always, the first step in fighting your opponents is understanding them.