Truth and consequences
If we execute Timothy McVeigh, questions about the Oklahoma City bombing will
go forever unanswered
by Dan Kennedy
IT'S MAY 16, 2026, the 25th anniversary of the day Timothy McVeigh was
supposed to die for the Oklahoma City bombing. His execution was postponed when
the FBI discovered that more than 3000 investigatory documents had never been
turned over to his lawyers. In 2003, President George W. Bush commuted
McVeigh's sentence to life in prison after a special commission chaired by
Attorney General John Ashcroft found that the bombing was the work of a
conspiracy of which McVeigh was only a part. Now 58 and dying of cancer,
McVeigh is being interviewed in his cell by a young lawyer brought in at his
request. "I'm not going to be around much longer," McVeigh says. "It's time to
tell the truth about what really happened."
IN THE week following the FBI's stunning admission that it had failed to
provide McVeigh's lawyers with all the documents they needed to defend their
client at his 1997 trial, the FBI has been subjected to a well-deserved and
long-overdue pounding by the media.
For the most part, though, the pounding has been administered on the FBI's own
terms -- that is, more commentators than not have accepted the notion that the
documents were withheld because of reckless incompetence rather than malice
aforethought. The real danger, we have been solemnly told, is that the paranoid
crazies who have never believed that McVeigh carried out the bombing alone will
latch onto the revelations as proof that their delusions are real.
The conventional wisdom was well summarized by Newsweek's Michael
Isikoff and Evan Thomas, who wrote that "from seemingly harmless errors and
petty evasions grow conspiracy theories about monster plots. If McVeigh's wish
is for publicity and martyrdom, the FBI has inadvertently added fuel to the
Yet if the media elite accept the FBI's cover story, the public does not.
Newsweek's own Web site reported the results of a poll showing that 43
percent of those surveyed believed the documents had been withheld
deliberately, and only 40 percent believed the government's story that it
resulted from some sort of intergalactic computer glitch. What a glitch: the
Los Angeles Times reported on Tuesday that still more documents had been
discovered, prompting a worldwide search.
There is virtually no doubt that Timothy McVeigh is guilty of participating in
the 1995 bombing, which killed 168 people, including 19 children. But there
have long been doubts among some lawyers, right-wing activists, and even
victims' families as to whether the conspiracy was -- as the official version
would have it -- limited to McVeigh, Terry Nichols, and, to a lesser extent,
The only way out of this dilemma is to commute McVeigh's sentence to life in
prison. It is inconceivable that McVeigh could be given a lethal injection next
month -- or six months from now, or a year or two from now -- with questions
about what really happened still unanswered. McVeigh claims he has told
us what happened, repeating in a letter to the Houston Chronicle this
week that there were no other conspirators. "The truth is on my side," he
reportedly wrote. But for those who believe he has yet to come clean, the
prospect of his maintaining his silence all the way to the grave is nearly as
horrifying as the crime he committed six years ago.
And that, in turn, leads to an inescapable conclusion: we must abolish the
death penalty once and for all. Even if McVeigh was part of a broader
conspiracy, he is still the worst mass murderer in American history -- a
remorseless, evil man who remains proud of what he did. If we can't execute him
-- and we can't -- then how can we execute the poor, the black, and the
mentally ill wretches who are the customary victims of capital punishment?
In an online forum on WashingtonPost.com on Friday, Kathy Graham Wilburn -- who
lost her two grandchildren in the rubble of the Murrah Federal Building -- put
it this way: "McVeigh deserves to die for what he did, but I am not in favor of
killing him. Dead men don't talk. If McVeigh was to have a change of heart I
would like for him to be able to tell us what happened."
PERHAPS THE most shocking aspect of last week's revelations was that FBI
director Louis Freeh had gotten away with his act for as long as he did.
Freeh's eight years at the top have been marked by a remarkable series of
missteps. There was the persecution of Richard Jewell, falsely accused of the
Olympic bombing in Atlanta, and of Wen Ho Lee, the former Los Alamos scientist
who was jailed for months in a spying probe that eventually fell apart. There's
Robert Hanssen, the agent accused of treason, and the FBI crime lab, exposed as
shoddy and incompetent. And, of course, there are the scandals that preceded
Freeh, and that continue to eat away at the FBI's credibility because of his
failure to address them in a public, systematic way: the agency's corrupt deal
with Boston gangsters Whitey Bulger and Stephen Flemmi, the fatal standoff at
Ruby Ridge, and the assault on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco. It was that
last event that McVeigh claims inspired his attack in Oklahoma City.
Yet Freeh has proven himself to be a master politician. Appointed by Bill
Clinton to lead the FBI, he burnished his reputation by sucking up to
congressional Republicans, making it clear that he believed not nearly enough
was being done to investigate the Clinton fundraising scandals -- a tack that
made it impossible for Clinton to fire him. As late as last week, the New
Yorker ran a long puff piece on Freeh, revealing that he had chosen to hand
his resignation to Bush rather than Clinton because he believed the Clinton
administration had stymied his efforts to investigate the 1996 bombing of an
American military base in Saudi Arabia.
And whatever his problems in running the FBI, Freeh could always point with
pride to Oklahoma City -- an $82 million investigation that reportedly
involved half of the bureau's agents when it was at its peak.
But there have always been questions about the investigation. How, critics
demanded, could McVeigh carry out such a deadly attack all by himself? What
about his right-wing ideology, and his ties to the militia movement? What about
reports that McVeigh was seen with other as-yet-unidentified people, and the
FBI's own early search for a "John Doe #2"? McVeigh's trial, conviction, and
subsequent confession in American Terrorist (Regan, 2001), by
journalists Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck, seemingly put those questions to rest,
at least in mainstream circles. Yet the FBI's own actions have now dredged them
up once again.
How credible are these questions? It's impossible to say. There are, as we all
know, people who believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not kill John F. Kennedy,
that James Earl Ray did not kill Martin Luther King Jr., that Sirhan
Sirhan did not kill Robert Kennedy, that John Wilkes Booth did not kill Abraham
Lincoln, that Franklin Roosevelt conspired with the Japanese to bomb Pearl
Harbor, and that the earth is flat. In the case of Oklahoma City, it is almost
certainly safe to discard theories that McVeigh was some sort of unwitting
government agent who blew up the Murrah building in a twisted,
Not so easy to dismiss, though, is a lengthy report published last week -- on
the same day the FBI's discovery was announced -- in the London
Independent by that paper's American correspondent, Andrew Gumbel.
According to what appears to be careful, well-documented reporting, Gumbel
found that McVeigh had, for several years, been a member of a group of
white-supremacist bank robbers called the Aryan Republican Army; that the
organization was heavily involved in the bombing; that a missing leg found in
the rubble, never claimed or identified, almost certainly belonged to one of
the bombers; and that, in addition to the bomb-laden Ryder truck outside the
building, there were several bombs that exploded inside.
According to Gumbel, the government never presented this story for reasons of
pragmatism. Prosecutors, fearful of putting a diffuse, complicated narrative
before the jury, concentrated on McVeigh, against whom they had the strongest
case; in any event, most of the other conspirators were either dead or in
prison by the time of McVeigh's trial. McVeigh, who'd decided to take the fall,
was happy to play along. And his lawyer, Stephen Jones, couldn't make the case
for a broader conspiracy because it would have harmed his client.
Less likely theories continue to get an airing as well. On May 4, the
right-wing Web site WorldNetDaily.com reported that a citizens committee headed
by Charles Key, a former Oklahoma state representative, had just completed a
500-page report on the bombing that found "over 70 witnesses" had seen McVeigh
with "one or more `John Does.' " The committee also presented evidence
that the bombing may have had some connection with the international terrorist
network financed by Osama bin Laden -- a theory that has been pursued by former
Oklahoma City television reporter Jayna Davis, who recently appeared on the Fox
News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor to discuss her views.
It's also worth noting that a 1997 book by the notorious British journalist
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, The Secret Life of Bill Clinton (Regnery), made
many of these same allegations, including an accusation that federal agents
knew beforehand that the Murrah building was a likely terrorist target. Few
American journalists take Evans-Pritchard seriously, and maybe they shouldn't.
Yet among Evans-Pritchard's allegations is that the FBI illegally withheld
so-called 302s -- investigative documents -- from the defense team. And now we
know that is precisely what the agency did.
For the most part, the mainstream media have been content to sneer at the
conspiracy theorists. The New York Times, the Boston Globe, and
Salon have all used the FBI revelations to check in on the right-wing
militia movement, many of whose members believe that "the government" was
behind the bombing. The subtext: still crazy after all these years. (And kudos
to U.S. News & World Report and the Boston Herald for
treating the more-credible theories with the seriousness they deserve.)
Whether any of the conspiracy theories are true, or whether substantial numbers
of people merely think they're true, what's needed is more
investigation, not condescension.
THIS PAST Sunday, 60 Minutes showed a year-old interview it had
conducted with McVeigh to a group of eight Oklahoma City survivors. It was a
moving program, ending with correspondent Ed Bradley touring a memorial and
museum that have been erected on the former site of the Murrah building. It
marks, as Bradley noted, the aftermath of "one man's act of terror."
And so the official version of what happened on that April day six years ago
has now been memorialized in glass and concrete. A dead child's sneaker, pulled
from the wreckage and plunked down inside a display case, stands as a silent
rebuke to anyone who would question that version.
One month from now, Timothy McVeigh is scheduled to be strapped down on a
gurney and killed. Even if it doesn't happen that day, it will probably happen
someday, sooner rather than later. And we will see the death penalty at its
most pernicious. McVeigh will take the truth with him to the grave. That truth
may well be exactly what he has said it is: that he carried out the bombing all
by himself, that there was no fellow conspirator other than Terry Nichols.
But how can we execute the only person who knows what really happened that day?
How can we know what he might tell us 10, 20, or 30 years from now?
George Bush and John Ashcroft have talked insipidly about "closure," as if
McVeigh's death will bring peace to the victims' families. Yet there can be no
closure without justice. And if we bury the truth along with McVeigh, there
will be no justice.
The death penalty is a barbaric act unworthy of a civilized society. To be
sure, McVeigh deserves to die. But we don't deserve the consequences of his
Dan Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.