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Heroes and Villains: Real and Imagined

Title Page >> Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Afterword | Message Board

PART FIVE: "Oklahoma City" (April 26, 1995)

I first learned about the Oklahoma City bombing when my wife Barb called me that morning. I was working on last week's column and, as is my habit, was pretty much oblivious to the rest of the world. After she told me what had happened, I went into the next room and turned on the television.

I stared at the blasted hulk of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and heard about the (No!) day-care center. Scattered on the floor around me were toys my kids hadn't put away before they went to bed the previous night. I usually pick them up during my writing breaks. It would be hours before I could bring myself to disturb the airplanes and crayons and Legos.

I can't remember when I went back to my office to finish the column. I worked on automatic pilot, numbed by the grisly images on the flickering screen. I faxed the column to Michael Dean and made myself a lunch I never ate. I picked up my son Eddie at his day-care center two hours earlier than usual.

Since then, like the rest of you, I have tried and failed to make sense of this hateful assault on innocent children, innocent adults, innocence itself. It can't be done.

My thoughts are as fragmented as the ruins of that shattered structure a thousand miles away. I have images and questions and tears. I have no answers.

At first glance, the Murrah Building looked much like one of those miniature sets designed for a Godzilla film. But, the more I looked, intricate details became evident. This was no harmless fantasy. No movie maker could have created such devastation in a mere studio.

The first accounts pointed the finger of blame at the Middle East and oh, how I wanted to believe them. Yes, give us the evil alien monster to hate. Give us a target we can put down with our own bombs and our own righteous might. It bothers me, though not as deeply as it should, that I could harbor such feelings. It is not something I wanted to learn about myself.

Hours later, I watched a newscaster weep as she reported the story. It was an honest emotion in a medium that rarely delivers such veracity. I cried with her.

The next day, Tim McVeigh was being held as the main suspect in the bombing. I could not imagine what could lead an American, one of our own, to commit such a cowardly and heinous act. I was able to imagine it better after listening to radio talk-show host Bo Gritz label the bombing "a masterpiece of science and art," as if it were some sort of Science Fair project.

McVeigh has ties to the Michigan Militia Corps, one of maybe thirty such fringe groups infesting the heartland of our country. They are militant, paranoiac, largely racist gatherings of men and women who have chosen to forego the political process and instead prepare for war against the government. They arm themselves with assault weapons and moralize violence. They are the listeners of right-wing hatemongers like Gritz and G. Gordon Liddy.

The militias and their broadcast gurus are already inventing implausible conspiracy theories which have the federal government as mad bomber in a plot to orchestrate an all-out attack on their organizations. Days after the bombing, while determined rescuers continue to search for survivors, Liddy is advising his listeners how to shoot federal agents.

The absurdness of such delusions is of damn small comfort to me when I look at a Newsweek map tracing these groups. There are swastikas, letters, circles, and squares symbolizing the nearness of Neo-Nazi organizations, the Klan, Skinheads, and others to the county in which I live. The headquarters of the Michigan Militia Corps, which kindled McVeigh's violence, is a too-short five-hour drive from my home.

Homegrown terrorists like McVeigh communicate with others of their ilk via various computer bulletin boards. They trade their bomb recipes and their conspiracy theories. Today, some of these psychopaths are calling McVeigh a "hero."

My definition of "hero" is somewhat different.

I look at Oklahoma City firefighter Chris Fields holding the bloody, dusty form of 1-year-old Baylee Almon, just handed to him by city police Sgt. John Avera. I see his all-too-visible sorrow that such a life should be cut so short. And I know that both he and Avera then went back into the horror that stole this innocent child to do their best to help others.

A friend called Friday evening to talk about the bombing and the heroes of its aftermath. We talked about the rescue teams in Oklahoma City, some of which had flown in from all over the globe to assist in the rescue. We talked about how the teams often had to be ordered to leave the building after their shift. We talked about their painstaking, piece-by-piece efforts.

But no heroic image affected me more profoundly that of Aren Almon, 22, the single mother of young Baylee. She wanted to meet Avera and Fields, to thank them for taking her daughter from that bombed building. In the midst of the greatest grief a parent can know, she wanted to thank them.

McVeigh, that wretched creation of hate, had robbed Almon of her child through a cowardly act of unspeakable vileness. But he could never steal from this grieving mother her simple decency or her dignity.

In a few short hours, as I write this, the rescue teams will be reaching that area of the Murrah Building where they expect to find well over a hundred victims of McVeigh's hate. I don't want to watch the news reports, but I will.

We owe it to the victims of this despicable villainy to keep watch over their memory and to ask some very hard questions about our country.

How can we defend ourselves against homegrown terrorists and those who, in the name of free speech, encourage them?

Can we make the price for such terrorist acts so severe that it will deter future assaults on humanity?

Do we have the courage and the wisdom to forego the rhetoric of politics in addressing these issues?

Even after the last victim is brought from the ruins of that building in Oklahoma City, the search must continue.

For answers to our questions.

For our piece of mind.

For our children.

Tony Isabella

Discuss this column with me at my Message Board.

    Heroes and Villains: Real and Imagined

    Introduction
    "My Back Pages" (September 22, 2001)

    Part One
    "My Heroes Have Always Been Heroes" (March 24, 1995)

    Part Two
    "There Are Heroes Among Us" (April 5, 1995)

    Part Three
    "Heroes and Hope" (April 10, 1995)

    Part Four
    "Crisis of Faith" (April 19, 1995)

    Part Five
    "Oklahoma City" (April 26, 1995)

    Part Six
    "Making It Right" (May 16, 1995)

    Part Seven
    "Columbine High School" (May 4, 1999)

    Afterword
    "Unfinished Business" (September 23, 2001)

Title Page >> Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Afterword | Message Board





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