April 19, 1995, is a date etched in the minds of all who live in Oklahoma City, because it was on that day at 9:02 A.M. that the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed. Just as most Americans alive at the time of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination remember where they were when they heard the news, so almost every person living in Oklahoma City or its suburbs can tell you what he was doing when he felt and heard the explosion.
I was teaching English to foreign students at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, 15 miles from downtown Oklahoma City and the Murrah Federal Building. We were on the third floor of a former dormitory, which was being renovated for use as an administration and classroom building. Constructed in the era when elements of traditional beauty still enhanced college campuses, the old mammoth boasted granite floors, a winding staircase with polished wooden banisters, and marble window seats beneath enormous windows on the landings. At 9:01, my students were beginning to take an examination, and I was performing the ritual of scrutinizing them. Once they seemed sufficiently engrossed, or at least deterred from cheating, I planned to settle down with Fifty Russian Winters by Margaret Wettlin. At 9:02, every head jerked up at the loud crash, which sounded exactly as if the construction crew working on the clay tile roof had somehow managed to hoist a very large and very full trash dumpster to the roof and then drop it squarely to the ground. While such a sound was unsettling, we were so used to the noise of our building’s reconstruction that we were more awestruck than frightened. Whatever it was, it was clearly over and I motioned for the students to resume their test-taking. All did, except one young Saudi Arabian, who looked alarmed and found it hard to concentrate. In retrospect, I suspect that he had at least one other possible explanation for the sound and was surprised that I had ignored it.
Most of us here in Oklahoma City did not know immediately what would make such a sound. For all that CNN showed us of the Gulf War and Bosnia, most Americans do not know the sounds of war. Television news generally shows either the aftermath of explosions, replete with weeping bereaved women, or it displays soundless computer graphics of fuzzy squarish targets followed by a flash of light, indicating by its position whether or not our glorious American technology has produced a direct hit, a bit like the children’s game “Battleship.” For those of us on the outskirts of Oklahoma City that day, it was again to our televisions that we turned to learn the explanation for what we had heard. Walking past the student lounge after class, I noticed the grieved and serious, but unsurprised, face of my Kazakh student among others watching the television. I stepped in for a moment and learned the news.
Responses during the first days varied widely. The response of one of my colleagues was to buy copies of all the newspapers published within a 500-mile radius for the next few days, more as souvenirs, I think, than for information, since they all reported basically the same thing. According to the Daily Oklahoman, the city’s only major newspaper, and according to local television and radio coverage, some people reacted to early reports of Middle Eastern involvement by treating local Arabs with deepened suspicion and, in several cases, with outright hostility. One man reported that neighbors banged on his door so fiercely that his terrified pregnant wife miscarried their child. The higher-ranking officials of the BATF office located in the Murrah Federal Building had responded in advance to the tragedy by not having shown up for work that morning. The secretaries who worked in the BATF office responded by dying a violent death. (For weeks after the bombing, the Daily Oklahoman published lists, classified by job, title, and office of the dead, as they were unearthed and identified. Since the date invited the connection of the bombing with the Waco event, my husband and I looked specifically to see whether BATF officials were also killed in the bombing or had inexplicably escaped harm.) During the ensuing weeks of searching the rubble for the bodily remains of victims, Oklahomans drove their cars with headlights on as a show of sympathy, awareness, and solidarity. On April 19, 1996, the headlights were once again lit, as drivers silently proclaimed that those who had lost loved ones were not forgotten.
The most common response by far, however, can be summed up in the expression, “Not here!” Things like this just don’t happen in middle America, not in Oklahoma. I heard it over and over again. Oklahomans were only expressing a typically American naiveté. American involvement in the wars of the 20th century has always occurred “over there” or “somewhere in the Pacific” or in the “European theater.” Theater! Who thought up this way of naming a war zone: as if we were all simply watching a play! Now, however, it has turned into a Brecht play, during which the actors on stage turn and pelt the audience with stage props. “No fair!” the audience cries, forgetting that there never was a protective wall of separation between the stage and the rest of the theater; there was only air.
Faced with the opportunity to feel what it might be like to be an Iraqi or a Bosnian Serb on the business end of a “smart bomb,” or, more generically, what it feels like to live in the majority of the world’s countries—most of which have been touched by some sort of mass violence in this century—we instead learned about self-pity and denial. One specifically morbid response of the television and news magazine media was to focus on the children in the daycare center as the bombing’s most important victims. Perhaps it was because they were little and cute and could be carried away by burly firemen with soot-streaked, grieving faces. Perhaps they represented how small and vulnerable everyone felt in the face of such a tragedy.
Garnering a certain measure of sympathy is inherent in the telling of a story and is part of what makes one thing newsworthy and another not. It is relevant that people were killed, maimed, widowed, and orphaned by the bombing. If the perpetrator had bombed a grove of trees in Roman Nose State Park, for example, the story would rightly be thought relatively unimportant. The effect of an event on human lives is an essential part of a news story. When, however, the news media go beyond establishing an item’s newsworthiness and attempt to get their audience to suffer vicariously with the victims of a disaster, this is going too far.
Human compassion carries with it, by definition, the desire for action to relieve the person’s suffering. Yet the compassion of the newscast’s audience, however sincere, cannot reach the Liberians, the Bosnians, the orphaned children of soldiers, or the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. True morality belongs instead on a local level, and matters of compassion should be left to the families, the churches, the communities, the neighbors, the Red Cross. Long-distance, vicarious suffering is simply not real suffering. It tricks us into thinking that we are suffering when we are not, that we are compassionate when we are not, leaving us proud participants in virtual morality.
Children are also subject to the vagaries of these philosophical inconsistencies. After horrifying our children by showing them gruesome pictures of bleeding toddlers and babies on television, the community and the nation then proceeded to “comfort” them. In an effort to ensure that all of the children in our schools knew that someone “felt their pain” over the bombing, a number of things were done. School officials planted trees in front of schools and held ribbon-tying ceremonies in honor of the victims. Teddy bears, donated by a well-intentioned someone in another part of the country, were distributed. Compassionate gestures like this, truly kindhearted, were scattered like grapeshot into this community. As with all such indirect, impersonal gifts, however, many missed their mark. At the elementary school my children attended last year, for some reason the third-grade students received teddy bears after the bombing. A year later, when all but the most directly affected schoolchildren had gotten over it, we reminded them by holding a moment of silence in the schools at 9:02 A.M. and discussing it all over again.
One of the sad results of the general institutionalization of American children from the age of six weeks up is that adults seem to have lost sight of the realities of childhood. Children are not comforted by planting trees and tying ribbons and receiving teddy bears from strangers and feeling guilty because little sister did not get one. A child is comforted by the presence of an adult who knows him and is truthful and compassionate and who, quite simply, is there.
There is also the matter of family honor and privacy. Since when should people halfway across the nation (or around the globe, for that matter) be silent staring parties to an individual’s or a community’s grief? Journalists who prey on grieving women around the world to get their scoop should be sent back to deliver papers, not write for them. Likewise demoted should be journalists who believe that their audience is too ignorant to notice when the grief they are reporting is a result not of the political or military crisis at hand, but of the woman’s own internal contradictions. During the Gulf War, tor example, nearly half of what was reported on the television news in the early days of the war concerned the plight of American military families containing two military members, rather than one, who were now both being mobilized and deployed to the front. Weeping women whined on television, “What will I do with my children?” Indeed.
The news media’s attention to the distress of individuals tends also to obscure the larger issues that those who are brave enough to keep abreast of current events should be pondering. Why, for example, did the bombing take place on the anniversary of Waco? What kind of seething cultural and political forces does this point to under the surface of American society—or is it simply a random act of pathological violence without significance? What will be the implications for our society of raising an entire generation to believe that mass violence (whether a domestic terrorist act, a Bosnian war, or a Chechen rebellion) involves a crazed, evil, nasty party wreaking random, senseless destruction on lily white innocent victims? And instead of “Why here?” and “Oh no, it can’t be!” why aren’t at least a few voices going beyond the arrogance of those responses and stating what we all know to be true: either there were specific, possibly preventable, reasons for this bombing or it was truly random and crazed, in which case Oklahoma City and Middle America are in no way insulated from such a roll of the dice.
Oklahoma City, for all its portrayal as a “town of the Heartland,” is, like any other metropolitan area of a million people, a conglomerate of small local communities organized around neighborhoods, churches, schools, and places of work. Everyone who died at the Murrah Federal Building was a member of some community that cared for him, and the consolation expressed by that community would greatly comfort his surviving family and friends. Yet the media blitz, the mass memorials, and the nationwide sympathy campaigns had the ironic effect of making the experiences of these smaller, more intimate communities appear paltry and meaningless by comparison. The superficial and insignificant upstaged the profound and meaningful, simply because the former was largescale and centralized and the latter was small-scale and local.
There have also been responses of the political and economic “gather ye roses while ye may” variety. Politicians have made appearances to show their compassion. President Clinton and Vice President Gore have come on separate occasions to demonstrate concern. The name of our Governor Frank Keating is now known nationwide, not because of his skills as a governor, but because tragedy happened on his watch. A coffee table book was published within months of the bombing, and a relentless stream of books, events, songs, and television programs have filled the last year. The anniversary of the bombing saw a resurgence of economic interest in the event. Bumper stickers were duly produced for sale. Ribbon sales across town skyrocketed as merchants made or purchased ready-made memorial ribbons for their employees to wear on the anniversary. Of course, the trees planted in front of the schools needed fresh ribbons as well.
As the city for weeks prepared for the massive one-year anniversary memorial service, one could not help but be suspicious that bomb-mourning was threatening to degenerate into a state industry—a macabre, sentimental, yearly April Mardi Gras. Thankfully, it seems unlikely that the media, economic, and political interests will continue to dominate the public grief process in Oklahoma in the coming years. Since the one-year anniversary, talk of the bombing seems to have subsided. Perhaps Oklahomans have been honorably observing a one-year period of public mourning, much as a widow wears black for a year though she remembers her husband forever.
The personal responses to the Oklahoma City bombing are, of course, varied and endless. For those who lost loved ones, the grief will continue to take the form that fits their religious and philosophical outlook on life. No amount of memorial services and news reports will affect or alter this. As individual residents of Oklahoma City continue to live in the wake of this tragedy in our midst, the best things to be done are to comfort the ones we know personally who lost a loved one and to go on with the necessities of our own daily life and inner convictions. No man knows the hour of his own death.