McVeigh: Contradiction in Life And Death

Reuters/June 11, 2001
By Michael Conlon

Terre Haute, Ind. -- Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh lived a life of contradiction and died the same way. The decorated, model soldier executed Monday for killing 168 men, women and children seemed to die with a ``sense of pride,'' one witness said, as though it was ``all part of his plan.'' But said another: ``I was expecting to see a soldier. Instead I saw a man who appeared to be afraid.''

Nor was there a sign in the execution chamber at the U.S. Penitentiary near this Indiana city of the stringbean of a kid from New York state once bullied in the school bathroom, or of the boy who cried for days when he saw a litter of unwanted kittens drowned.

Not visible either was the rage that caused the Army veteran to drive a bomb-on-wheels into America's soul. Now dead at 33, six years after the bombing, McVeigh remained incomprehensible to most people. Even in his final written communications he coupled any regret with what he did with an equal or greater justification of his own righteousness.

Although he made no final oral statement, McVeigh left behind a written one -- a word for word copying of 19th Century British poet William Ernest Henley's poem ``Invictus,'' a celebration of the triumph of the human spirit, that ends with the lines: ``I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.''

His face was a mask in most photos taken since he bombed the Alfred P. Murrah federal building (news - web sites) on April 19, 1995. One shot taken with his lawyers showed a disarming smile but most photos show only a stony, emotionless face beneath the bristle of a military-style haircut.

An Unremarkable Story

In most ways, McVeigh was unremarkable. Certainly nothing flagged him as the man who carried out the deadliest attack on civilians in U.S. history, a kind of terrorism Americans had come to associate with places like Beirut or Tel Aviv.

He had an ordinary childhood and excelled in the Army, where an obsession with neatness and fitness impressed commanders. But his life seemed to fall apart when he left the Army soon after failing to achieve his dream of joining the elite Special Forces. He drifted around the country, becoming increasingly drawn to far right-wing politics.

McVeigh was born on April 23, 1968, in the small town of Pendleton, New York, the son of an auto worker, William McVeigh, and his wife, Mildred. He developed an early passion for guns, shooting in thick woods near his home. At 14, McVeigh told friends he was a survivalist, stockpiling food and weapons ``in case of a nuclear attack or the Communists took over the country,'' according to a neighbor quoted in one published account.

After graduating from high school, McVeigh held several jobs, including working as a security guard for an armored truck company, before joining the Army on May 24, 1988. During basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, he became close friends with Terry Nichols, who joined the Army on the same day.

McVeigh and Nichols, who has been sentenced to life in prison for helping McVeigh plan the bombing, had a mutual interest in guns and survivalism. Later, both men were assigned to an infantry battalion at Fort Riley, Kansas. McVeigh is reported to have kept his own personal arsenal there.

A Brilliant Military Career

McVeigh scored high on tests, kept his uniform neatly pressed and volunteered for extra duties, winning rapid promotion to sergeant. Some colleagues thought he was destined for a brilliant military career.

But McVeigh also became fascinated while in the military with ``The Turner Diaries,'' a novel that depicts an American race war in which bombers plot to blow up a federal building. The book became a bible for the extreme right. McVeigh served as a gunner on a Bradley fighting vehicle during the 1991 Gulf War, receiving the Bronze Star and several other medals. He returned to the United States soon after the war to try out for the Special Forces but dropped out on the second day, saying he was not physically ready for the grueling course. Increasingly bitter, he left the Army on Dec. 31, 1991.

He returned home and found work as a security guard in Buffalo. He showed his frustration with the government in a 1992 letter to a local newspaper that said: ``Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn't come to that! But it might.''

In 1993, he became a drifter, living in trailer parks, working at odd jobs and buying and selling guns. Often wearing military fatigues, he moved between Arizona and northern Michigan, areas where right-wing militia groups were active. In a later jailhouse interview with Newsweek, he denied belonging to any militia group.

McVeigh visited Waco, Texas, during the 1993 standoff between the FBI (news - web sites) and the Branch Davidian sect. The siege's fiery end on April 19, 1993, when an estimated 80 Davidians died, enraged McVeigh. He carried out the federal building attack two years to the day the Davidian compound burned.

Perhaps the most recent light shed on McVeigh the person has come in a new book, ``American Terrorist, Timothy McVeigh & the Oklahoma City bombing,'' by newspaper reporters Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck.

With what they say was complete and candid access to McVeigh and his family, they paint a childhood that is all the more striking for its ordinary tones. They recount how McVeigh cried for days when a neighbor drowned a litter of unwanted kittens in a pond near his home; how he baby-sat and amused neighboring children; and how he loved a doting grandfather who taught him how to use a rifle.

McVeigh's 61-year-old father, in the book and in other recent interviews, has said his son regrets causing him pain but has no apologies for what he did. He loves him still, he says, even though he is not the son he knew before the Army and before his fascination with anti-government causes. McVeigh the convict, he says, turned down the chance to give him a hug during their final jailhouse visit.

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