Timothy McVeigh detonated a two–ton fertilizer bomb packed in a rental truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on the second anniversary of the fire at the Branch Davidian compound outside of Waco, Texas, which prosecutors later claimed had enraged and motivated him.
McVeigh saw the bombing as a way of striking back at the federal government and possibly of instigating a rebellion by militia groups.
The bomb exploded at 9:02A.M. on April 19, 1995, when many of the more than 500 people who worked in the building were already there. The explosion, which destroyed the entire front of the building, killed 168, including 15 children. (The children were present because there was a daycare center in the building.)
The Oklahoma City bombing elicited the earliest of our American “ going deeper” examples of spontaneous monuments, and until September 11th, the bombing was the most devastating act of terrorism on American soil.
After the bombing, a chain link fence was constructed around the building to keep the public back from recovery and clean–up efforts.
That fence, the dividing line between the living and the ongoing life in Oklahoma City on the outside and the terrible death and destruction on the inside, became the site for a spontaneous memorial.
On the second anniversary of the bombing in 1997, Governor Frank Keating touched on an important theme in our resource materials. He said, “That fence has become our shrine, and it is fitting that on this second anniversary we adorn it with tributes and memories.” He invited people to leave whatever they wished at the fence, as the spontaneous memorial continued to renew itself with official sanction two years after the event that spawned it.
Unlike most short–lived spontaneous memorials, a substantial section of the fence at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was moved and incorporated permanently into the final memorial.
It seemed incomprehensible for such destruction to take place in what residents perceived as a safe and quiet corner in mid–America.
Wrestling with inexplicable violence of this magnitude in the seemingly safe heartland, the family and friends of victims, as well as outsiders, struggled to make sense of a life–changing event that was so completely unexpected and senseless.
One of our resources from salon.com reviews a book by Edward Linenthal, The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory. (See “Trauma Culture” in the resource menu.) The review summarizes complex and challenging questions about the different “narratives” that people constructed after the bombing to find meaning in the face of violent loss.
The review and the book serve as a powerful vantage point for assessing the role of spontaneous memorials.
How do spontaneous memorials fit into this struggle over memory and meaning? Are some or all of the different “narratives” that Linenthal investigates already expressed in some way in spontaneous memorials?
As an initial step toward healing, do spontaneous memorials begin a single, clear, and simple process of honoring victims and their families, or are the dynamics of spontaneous memorials much more complex, with remembrance following very different paths, some of which may actually complicate and delay healing?
Where is the boarder drawn between victims and heroes? Do we try to make meaningless death meaningful by transforming victims into heroes?
None of these questions have simple and definitive answers, but struggling with them will give us a deeper understanding of how memory can seek to mold and define history through memorialization.
Paradoxically it is by looking back as far as we can to the Oklahoma City bombing and its aftermath that we get a preview of what may be to come in New York City, as it wrestles for years with the aftermath of September 11th.
Timothy McVeigh was convicted in 1997 of the bombing and sentenced to death. He was executed by lethal injection on November 6, 2001 at the U.S. Penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana.