When you consider the events of April 19, 1995, and you see those photos of the gutted Alfred P. Murrah Building, images of first responders pulling dead babies from the wreckage, you can’t help but ask, who was Timothy McVeigh? Who was this Desert Storm hero from Pendleton, New York whose last meal was two pints of Haagen-Dazs mint-chip ice cream? Who liked fast cars and Star Trek: The Next Generation? Who at one point considered having his ashes spread over the Oklahoma City memorial? These are questions I won’t be able to answer for you. I haven’t a clue what could make a young man want to kill 168 people in cold blood. All I can do is tell you what it was like to have been there in Terre Haute, Indiana when he got whacked.
Terre Haute is a dismal place even when it’s not hosting executions. Driving down 3rd Street you have the Wal-Mart, the Burger King, the Taco Bell. There’s the Vigo County Courthouse, a French-style neo-baroque building built in 1888 that looks oddly out of place amongst the brightly lit franchises. A few miles away there’s a branch of the University of Indiana, and a few blocks off Interstate 70 is the Terre Haute penitentiary, home of the nation’s only federal death chamber.
I’d reserved a room at a Super 8 a mile and a half from the prison. Tiger stripes covered the furniture where forgotten cigarettes had burned to death. I crashed out for a few hours as soon as I got there, and woke up around midnight with an unwelcome burst of energy. I had a good 30 hours to blow before they smote McVeigh. My friend Steve Lewis, the artist who’d accompanied me on my excursion to the Republican National Convention last year, was arriving the following night with his girlfriend, Trish. Until then there was nothing for me to do but watch TV and think too much.
Newsmen stationed outside the penitentiary kept referring to the Oklahoma City bombing as one of those unprecedented tragedies that “touched us all.” Whenever people start talking about America in terms of “us” or “we” I feel uneasy. Shared experience implies shared blame, and I’d sooner slave 18 hours a day building bombs for the Chinese than take the rap for George W. Bush’s America. Besides, I was about as touched by the bombing of the Murrah building as I was at the news that Ginger Spice was leaving the rest of the Girls to go solo. I think that’s the real reason I went to Terre Haute—to see if I could make some kind of emotional connection to the pathos beaming out at me from my TV set. Where others might have been looking for closure, I was trying to find an opening.
I’m more or less the same age as Timothy McVeigh, and I can relate to him in that respect. In the mid-‘90s, when other kids our age were finding out what a bachelor’s degree was worth in the twilight of the 20th century, Timmy quit college, bought a car and got a job at Burger King. Some kids grew their hair out in dreadlocks and got tattoos to be more like their favorite pop acts, Timmy joined the Army because he was a fan of movies like Rambo and Missing in Action. Through the infrared viewfinder of his Bradley fighting vehicle, McVeigh was living the video game that Sega fanatics could only dream of. Ultimately, that would be the foremost thing he had in common with the rest of Generation X—that TV-baby detachment.
Timmy is my generation’s Charles Manson. Just as the Tate-LaBianca killings went a long way towards derailing flower power in the eyes of Nixon’s Silent Majority, making it easier for the administration to shoot college kids or escalate an unpopular war, the Oklahoma City bombing proved to the American people that terrorism was no longer the exclusive domain of turban-coifed fanatics in the Middle East, and underscored the need for government to take a closer look at the boy next door. As the war on drugs grows increasingly more unpopular, terrorism will be the latest excuse for the federal government to kick down doors. It’s the perfect ruse. Who is going to come out against a war on domestic terrorism? Gun nuts? Nazis? TERRORISTS MAYBE? When the smoke clears and Timmy recedes into that void that exists just beyond the American attention span, the only people who will have benefited from the 168 dead bodies in Oklahoma City are the very agencies that he had supposedly declared war on.
With the nap in my system, my senses had become uncomfortably acute. My room smelled like an ashtray and the view of the interstate just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I decided to go out and sample Terre Haute’s nightlife.
The most happening place in town was Willy Jack’s, a large barn-like building decorated with corporate beer logos. Inside, a bunch of locals were dancing in a line while a DJ choreographed their moves through a microphone. Most everyone was vastly overweight, and I wondered what secret sufferings had caused them to punish their bodies to such an extent. After unsuccessfully trying to score weed, I hooked up with a couple of Associated Press guys who were so drunk they could hardly speak. None of us had much to say about the execution. I killed half a dozen Heinekens with them before walking back to my rented car, feeling anxious and unfulfilled.
Figuring I’d drive off the beer before heading back to my room for the night, I cruised up and down 3rd Street looking for whatever it was that main drags like that seem to promise but never deliver—sex, drugs, money, action, danger, violence—something that might make me feel a little more alive. Well-cared-for machines pulled up alongside me and checked me out—Camaros, Mustangs, GTOs and Harley after shiny Harley. In Indiana you are what you drive. I was commanding the wheel of a rented Hyundai, which I guess told everybody I was yet another member of the press here to witness Terre Haute’s moment of infamy. It was Saturday night in the heart of America. I drove up and down the strip cranking the Nuge until I was tired enough to go to bed.
After a 10-hour drive from a wedding they’d attended in Nebraska, Steve and Trish arrived at my door the following night. They were barely out of the shower before I dragged them off to Voorhees Park, the meeting place for the pro-execution demonstration. The prison wasn’t allowing anyone to drive up to the gates—the only way in was on one of the buses they use to transfer convicts. After being patted down by a contingent of black-clothed Feds from the Bureau of Prisons, we were allowed aboard. We drove past a large sewage-treatment center and a few humble homes that had rented out their front lawns as parking lots, before entering the prison and landing in a fenced-off area, where a dozen or so zealots sat in bleachers holding signs that read, “Sleep Easy OK City” and “McVeigh Meets His Maker.”
I spoke with J.J. Jackson from Oklahoma City, a Stepford-wife type who looked like she might have been something back when Jimmy Carter was still calling the shots. When I spoke to her she told me that she welcomed the execution, because “this is what society says is an acceptable way of dealing with his crime.” She’d gotten involved with the case when she volunteered to help with the death notifications. She seemed tired and a little delirious as she was interviewed by one member of the press after another.
On our way out, we ran into two religious types from California. The more vocal of the pair was a short, squat guy named Reuben Israel (“Reuben like the sandwich, Israel like the country”). He looked like George “the Animal” Steele and held a sign which read, “The Wages of Sin Is Death.”
Reuben was a pastor at something called the Bible Believer’s Church in Los Angeles. “God is pro-death penalty! God wants Timothy McVeigh to die!” he exclaimed to the small group of press that surrounded him.
“Shouldn’t it be, ‘the wages of sin are death?’” Steve asked.
“I’m still trying to figure out what kind of Christian is named after a kosher sandwich and the Jewish state,” Trish cracked.
At Fairbanks Park, the meeting place for the antideath-penalty congregation, we were again searched. The guy asked us if we’d been drinking, then yawned into his Glock and waved us all onto another bus, this one loaded to capacity with well-intentioned Jesus freaks. The last person to get on was a denim-clad preacher who asked the BOP boys if there would be a place where he could set up and preach. The cops shrugged their shoulders, and the dungaree deacon quipped to his friend, “It’s a good thing I didn’t bring my twelve-foot cross.”
We reached the demonstration site at around 2 AM, with a good five hours to kill before the main event. A few hundred feet away, the prison looked more like a suburban high school than the site of the most notorious execution in America since the Rosenbergs got the chair back in ’53. The crowd ranged in age from teenagers to senior citizens—mostly religious types, mostly locals. A few folks walked around with yellow smocks that read, “Peace Team,” which meant they’d been trained to intercede in a confrontation; others wore red shirts that read “Stop Executions Now.”
To the dismay of the somber crowd, the denim preacher from the bus started shouting how the only way any of us were going to enter heaven was by repenting all our sins and accepting Jesus as our true savior. Though he might have been a fat, ignorant slob on this earth, he assured us he’d have the last laugh in the afterlife.
When 4 AM rolled around, the protesters arranged themselves in a circle and began what was to be for them 168 minutes of silence—one minute for each victim of the Oklahoma City bombing. You have to imagine the scene—200 press people hoping to get copy from less than a hundred demonstrators who just took a vow of silence for the next three hours. Reporters got so desperate they were actually approaching yours truly for comment. One guy from the Detroit News asked me if I thought McVeigh accomplished anything with his actions. I told him he made it harder for farmers to buy fertilizer.
An hour and a half into the vigil, the media lost all composure. Camera crews were snaking through the circle of protesters while reporters tried to get people to break their silences. Capturing the pathos for the Land of the Rising Sun were two guys from a Tokyo news agency. They slithered through the crowd, attached by a slim black microphone cord. No one was sniffing out a story, no one was looking at the big picture. The Feds had led them to this well-chummed tidal pool, and they were eating so fast they couldn’t taste the hooks.
I began to wish that they were executing someone I really did hate—like the soccer coach I had back in ’76 who thought it was funny to bounce the ball off my head.
That’s what this gathering was lacking—hatred. (And booze.) Rather than dividing the pro- and antideath-penalty people into two camps, they should have brought them together for an all-out superbrawl. Enough of this sitting around with our spiritual thumbs up our asses, I wanted a moment laced with passion.
Steve and Trish sat on a bale of hay, exhausted. They were getting married in a couple months, and I guess this was like an early honeymoon for them. The sun started to rise—the sky turned from black to purple to blue, and the clouds floated over us like huge pink jellyfish. For the first time since I’d arrived, Terre Haute was beautiful.
At 7:10 AM, inside the sprawling mass of buildings and razor wire behind us, Timothy McVeigh received the first of three drugs—sodium pentothal to sedate him. Next came a dose of pancuronium bromide to arrest his breathing. While a third drug, potassium chloride, was stopping his heart, and Timmy was finally losing the staring contest he was having with the camera beaming his death via closed-circuit TV to a hand-picked audience back in Oklahoma City, the protesters bowed their heads and prayed to a God who was probably sleeping through the whole thing.
There was no fireworks, no army bugler playing taps. All was quiet except for the dull staccato of a helicopter and the hum of the generators powering the satellite dishes that were broadcasting the tragedy across the globe. The protesters rose, their hands still clasped. The silence ended in a crescendo of shutters clicking on expensive cameras. Bill Breeden, a Unitarian minister, spoke for the crowd.
“As Timothy McVeigh’s spirit leaves this earth, my prayer is that his spirit hears us…”
After his speech, which focused on the immorality of the death penalty, the crowd began a chorus of “We Shall Overcome,” repeating the phrase over and over. For a moment they did just that—overcame the heat, overcame the popping flash bulbs, overcame the morbid energy emanating from the death house a few hundred yards away. For a good ten minutes, they’d managed to wrestle a little morsel of peace from the dogs of eternity.
As if he’d just received a command from the Nazarene Himself, the dungaree deacon from the bus climbed to the middle of the circle and started ranting, “This is a farce! You all have your political agendas! Is anyone here concerned about Timothy McVeigh’s soul?”
He shattered the moment like it was a plate at a Greek wedding.
“America does not need closure, it needs forgiveness! Is anyone here really concerned about Timothy’s soul? Is anyone here a wretch? I’m a wretch!” The yellow-smocked Peace Team tried explaining to him in unthreatening tones what an asshole he was being, but there was no stopping the freak. The whole world was watching and he had something to say. “Jesus has a plan and a purpose for your lives, not Buddha, not Muhammad, and not your own agenda!”
The scene was really starting to suck. I went to find Steve and Trish so we could leave.
“C’mere, you gotta check this picture out,” Steve said. He led me over to Jeremy Hogan, a photographer from Miami. He was going through the digital thumbnails on his camera, looking for something specific.
“Here it is,” Jeremy said and showed me a picture he’d snapped of one of the protesters, a woman who looked very much like my old kindergarten teacher, with a baby robin sitting on her arm. “It just landed on her, as she was sitting and meditating. It stayed there for almost an hour.”
Steve and Trish led the search for the woman, who we found with some of her family, almost too dazed to talk. Her name was Julia and she was from Bloomington, Illinois. I asked her what happened.
“I was feeling very low. I heard all the bird songs at dawn and I thought about how Timothy McVeigh will never hear those songs again, how his family will never hear those songs the same way again…. In the midst of all this death, my little bird friend came and gave me a moment of comfort.”
“What do you think it meant?” I asked her.
“I just hope that the message gets to our president—the death penalty is not closure, it’s just more suffering.”
I thanked her for her story, and we queued up for the bus.
The BOP boys wouldn’t let her bring the bird on the bus, and it was flapping around in the grass, too sick to fly. I wondered whether this robin was the vehicle through which Timothy McVeigh’s much-talked-about soul would be carried into the next life. Could McVeigh have been watching us through those tiny bird-eyes? And if so, what was he thinking?
Tweet tweet, couple rounds from my trusty M249 and you’re all feeding the worms, tweet tweet tweet.
I finally asked Steve what the hell I should write about. I didn’t have a clue.
“Maybe the real story here is the absence of a story,” Steve suggested, “the absence of feeling of any kind. Isn’t that what irks people most about McVeigh? His indifference? All that talk about dead children being ‘collateral damage?’ Maybe there’s a little bit of Timmy in all of us.”
“I think the fact that we don’t feel anything about this might mean we’re all really fucked up emotionally,” Trish opined. “Then again, maybe I’m just too tired to think about it.”
As we drove away, I watched the prison though the bars on the window as it got smaller and smaller and finally disappeared.
It was about 9 AM when we got back to Fairbanks Park. In the distance someone was shouting into a bullhorn. As we walked to our car, I could see Reuben Israel holding his grammatically incorrect sign and admonishing the protesters.
“You people are deluded! God loves the death penalty! Timothy McVeigh must pay for his sins! Timothy McVeigh must die!”
The funny thing is I pretty much agreed with him. I don’t care if the bluebird of happiness itself came down from the sky and shat on my head, Timmy had to go. I can understand if you want to kill a few guys at work, maybe your family’s driving you nuts and you want to teach them a lesson, but 168 strangers? Feds or not, it’s pretty sick.
And about God loving the death penalty—well, that’s obvious. If there is a God, He’s not above sentencing people to die because they forgot to look both ways before they crossed the street.
That’s about all I can tell you about the whole affair. Waiting around for someone to die is a bore. It’s worse than laundry day. Steve and Trish were going to crash for a few hours at the Super 8 and head east to DC. Me, I was cruising up to Chicago for the night to hang with the ghosts of John Belushi and Al Capone. These days I prefer the company of dead men to all others. If Timmy ever shows up and tells me why he did it, I’ll be sure to let you know.