The Motive for the Oklahoma City Bombing (1995)

On April 19, 1995, the United States experienced an attack of domestic terrorism unlike anything before seen. An initially unknown person or group parked a Ryder truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma which held a massive bomb constructed of fuel, fertilizer, and other chemicals. At 9:02 a.m., the bomb detonated. Over 1/3 of the building was destroyed and all surrounding and nearby buildings sustained substantial damages. Cars around the area were demolished. The area had become a war zone. The death toll was devastating, with 168 lives lost, which included 19 children. The Ryder truck had been parked directly nearby the in-building daycare.

With this attack coming only two years after the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, many assumed that this attack must have been carried out by a Middle Eastern terrorist group. In 1993, the parking garage under the building became the grounds for a terrorist attack when an Islamic Fundamentalist group left a stolen van behind, which detonated and left 6 dead, and hundreds injured.

Footage from a nearby building showing where McVeigh parked the Ryder truck, 5 minutes before the bomb detonated

After the federal building bombing, the F.B.I. got to work with other rescue aid and began their investigation to find the perpetrator(s). Quite quickly, the rear axle of a Ryder van had been discovered, which held vital information, a V.I.N. number. This, coupled with witness descriptions creating a police sketch, led investigators directly to Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh was a 27-year-old ex-army veteran who was interested in far right-wing politics and extremism. Once McVeigh was captured, investigators learned of Terry Nichols, who helped build the bomb, and Michael Fortier, who knew of the plot.

The bomb destroyed much of the building

Why Did McVeigh Carry out the Bombing?

Several events led to the motivation behind Timothy McVeigh carrying out the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. His motive centered around what he, and many, considered the overreach and control of the U.S. government in terms of citizens’ rights to carry and own firearms.

Timothy McVeigh after his capture

One event occurred in August of 1992. At a remote cabin in northern Idaho, a family called the Weavers lived with a friend, Kevin Harris. Randy Weaver and his wife Vicky had a son, Sammy age 14, and three daughters. During this standoff exchange, lasting 11 days, several lost their lives. The initial confrontation was based on a weapons charge against Randy Weaver after he sold two sawed-off shotguns to an undercover Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (A.T.F.) agent at a local white supremacist gathering. Given several different dates to attend his court date, Weaver missed this date, after which a warrant was issued for his arrest.

The Weaver family

On August 21, U.S. Marshalls approached the Weaver cabin, coming across Randy Weaver, his 14-year-old son, and their friend, Harris. It was initially questioned who shot first, but it was concluded during the trial of Weaver and Harris in 1993 that officers shot first, first killing the family dog. Harris returned fire, killing a U.S. Marshall. Surviving Marshalls claimed that Harris fired first. During this shootout, Weaver’s son was shot in the back and killed. The situation led back to the Weaver cabin, where further shooting occurred. Allegedly fearing Weaver and Harris were preparing to fire upon an F.B.I. helicopter, Lon Horiuchi (an F.B.I. sniper), took fire. Weaver was hit in the arm. While fleeing away from the shots, Harris dove into the cabin, when Horiuchi fired again. Standing behind the door, holding her infant daughter, was Randy’s wife, Vicky, who was hit in the face. Her body lay in the cabin until the men surrendered days later.

The Weaver cabin

Weaver and his surviving daughters sued the federal government in 1995, which was settled. Discussion of the actions and decisions of federal officials, in this case, caused nationwide debates. Sammy Weaver was shot in the back, but a government investigation claimed that the shot could have come from either Weaver or another official after the U.S. Marshall was shot and killed. Lon Horiuchi was charged with manslaughter after the death of Vicki Weaver. He had fired upon Harris and Randy Weaver as they fled, posing no imminent threat, and Vicki was shot. Officers had initially been ordered to approach carefully and not injure the family, especially not the children. This event fueled Timothy McVeigh in his antigovernment ideology that many in the Patriot movement supported.

The other event that motivated the Oklahoma City Bombing attack, was the siege in Waco, Texas which lasted from February to April of 1993. This was a 51 day standoff between a group called the Branch Davidians and federal officers. The Davidians were an offshooting of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church that had built a small community in Waco. In the 1980’s, a man named Vernon Howell (later David Koresh), became the leader of the Mt. Carmel community of Davidians. There arose allegations of child abuse as well as illegal gun sales, which got the federal government officials involved in an investigation. The A.T.F. believed that they community had began to stockpile weapons in preparation for Armageddon and the coming of Jesus, what Koresh called a “trial by fire.” To this group, David Koresh represented himself as a messiah who recieved messages directly from God.

While not the primary focus of the A.T.F., it was suspected that Koresh was engaging in child sexual abuse. He had taken many “wives” within the group, claiming all children of the messiah were sacred. Some of his “wives” were suspected to be as young as 11 years old. In following years after the siege, many children claimed to have been abused by Koresh.

In light of the stockpiling allegations, the A.T.F. issued a warrant for the arrest of David Koresh and a search warrant for the compound. On that day in February in 1993, over 70 A.T.F. agents approached the compound. Gunfire erupted, but again, it is debated who fired upon who first. Several agents and Davidians were killed in this gun exchange. Through negotiations in later days, Koresh allowed many Davidians to leave. Agents used tactics to inhibit the sleep of those in the compound by loudly playing various sounds and songs. Once government officials became sure Koresh would not surrender, they gave the go to invade the compound.

The Branch Davidian building in flames

On April 19, agents used hundreds of tear gas canisters to drive them out, but were responded to with gunfire. The official story claims that after some time of silence, the Davidians set a fire to the compound and gunshots were heard inside. Nine more Davidians managed to escape the blaze. Firefighters were not allowed to enter due to the continuing gunfire. 75 bodies were found after the fire subsided, many of which were children. Some of the wounds were self-inflicted and others were not. It was later revealed that the tear gas used had been possibly flammable, leading to question how the deadly fire had started. Government investigation refuted the theory that they had started the fire. After the Oklahoma City bombing, a photo arose of Timothy McVeigh as he watched the siege from afar. He had witnessed the exchange. While here, he handed out anti-government materials and stickers.

Timothy McVeigh at the Waco Seige

Both events led to debate of what many saw as an aggressive and oppressive government. They led to questions of the overreach and power of the government. Perhaps the original weapons charges in both events were warranted, but was the subsequent aggression acceptable? Even in the midst of non-cooperative and combative citizens, should the government respond with force, or focus on deescalation of the situation? These are all things that Timothy McVeigh questioned. Coupled with his anti-government views in the patriot movement of the time, McVeigh planned his retaliation against the American government. The date of the bombing coinsided with the date of the end of the Waco siege, April 19.

McVeigh died via lethal injection on June 11, 2001.

Timothy McVeigh’s Statements on the Bombing

“If there would not have been a Waco, I would have put down roots somewhere and not been so unsettled with the fact that my government … was a threat to me. Everything that Waco implies was on the forefront of my thoughts. That sort of guided my path for the next couple of years.”

“Based on observations of the policies of my own government, I viewed this action as an acceptable option.”

“You can’t handle the truth. Because the truth is, I blew up the Murrah building and isn’t it kind of scary that one man could reap this kind of hell?”

“I understand what they felt in Oklahoma City. I have no sympathy for them.”