Bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of the worst terrorist incidents in U.S. history demonstrated that Americans were vulnerable to attack by rogue ideologues.

Summary of Event

On April 19, 1995, a truck bomb parked in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building in downtown Oklahoma City exploded, shattering the foundation and lower floors of the nine-story concrete edifice. The building housed fifteen federal agencies employing more than 500 people; it also was the site of a day-care center for employees’ children. Direct casualties included 168 dead as a result of the blast and more than 600 injured. These numbers made the bombing the worst incident of terrorism in U.S. history up to that time, but they do not fully recount the level of the damage done. The blast claimed many more indirect victims, stretching from the more than 250 children who lost a parent in the blast to the tens of thousands in the Oklahoma City community who counted among their friends and loved ones those killed or wounded by the explosion and to citizens across the country who suddenly needed to adjust to the reality of their vulnerability to terrorism, wherever they might work or live. Murrah Building bombing Terrorist acts Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building bombing [kw]Bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building (Apr. 19, 1995) [kw]Oklahoma City Federal Building, Bombing of the (Apr. 19, 1995) [kw]Federal Building, Bombing of the Oklahoma City (Apr. 19, 1995) [kw]Building, Bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal (Apr. 19, 1995) Murrah Building bombing Terrorist acts Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building bombing [g]North America;Apr. 19, 1995: Bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building[09180] [g]United States;Apr. 19, 1995: Bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building[09180] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Apr. 19, 1995: Bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building[09180] McVeigh, Timothy Nichols, Terry Lynn Keating, Frank

Rescue workers from as far away as Virginia traveled to Oklahoma City to help seek survivors amid the rubble while state, local, and federal law-enforcement agencies joined in what was reportedly the largest criminal investigation undertaken up to that time in U.S. history. Initial news stories suggested a Middle Eastern connection with the bombing, and Arab Americans were subjected to intense scrutiny in airports across the country. Lobbyist groups would later protest that the early news releases stereotyped Middle Easterners as terrorists and exposed them to abuse by an outraged U.S. public; however, circumstantial evidence did point in that direction. The explosive, a mixture of fuel oil and an ammonium nitrate fertilizer, was the same compound that Arab terrorists had employed in the February 26, 1993, bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, which killed six and injured one thousand. The mode of delivery was also the same—a parked rental van.

Moreover, because of Oklahoma’s links with the international oil community, people from the Middle East had long been familiar sights on Oklahoma City streets. Even the initial leads developed in the same way as those that resulted in the apprehension of the Arabs involved in the World Trade Center bombing: The vehicle that had contained the explosives was identified and tracked to the agency that rented it. The day following the blast, however, to the shock of many, the Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released composite sketches of the men who had rented the van—two white Americans.

Although violence is not unusual in the United States, political violence is relatively rare. Assassinations of political leaders have been infrequent, and those that have occurred have invariably been the work of alienated and often psychotic individuals. Similarly, although U.S. history is replete with the names of legendary villains, they have tended to be criminals such as bank robbers (for example, Jesse James). Criminals acting for political reasons, such as John Brown, have been few, and even such violent political organizations as the Ku Klux Klan and the Minutemen, and more recent groups such as antiabortion organizations that resort to violent acts, overwhelmingly have had as their targets either individuals or corporate America, not the federal government.

The 1970 bombing of the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin by antiwar protesters thus stood as the major postwar instance of political violence by U.S. citizens against an arm of the federal government prior to the Oklahoma City explosion, and statistics still indicate that of the more than three thousand bombs detonated in anger in the United States each year, virtually all are set off by individuals with personal grievances, with the overwhelming majority finding their targets at the municipal level. For most people in the United States, the idea that U.S. citizens could have conspired to have killed so many federal workers in Oklahoma City was nearly as hard to absorb as the fact of the bombing itself.

With sketches of the prime suspects, designated John Doe 1 and John Doe 2, in hand, investigators moved swiftly. John Doe 2 was eventually cleared of involvement in the terrorist attack; John Doe 1, identified as Timothy McVeigh, was quickly captured and charged with the bombing. As authorities reconstructed events, the planning of the attack had begun as early as the previous December, when McVeigh and an Army buddy, Michael Fortier, Fortier, Michael cased the nine floors of the federal building. During the following weeks, Fortier assisted McVeigh in raising the money needed to buy the tons of fertilizer used in the blast by selling guns (possibly stolen) at a series of gun shows, while another Army friend, Terry Lynn Nichols, allegedly assisted McVeigh in constructing the bomb. The momentarily popular theory that the blast was the work of the Michigan Militia, Michigan Militia an ultra-right-wing anti-Washington group that counted Nichols among its devoted members, remained unsubstantiated.

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As the investigation proceeded from arrest to the indictment of McVeigh, Fortier, and Nichols, the national political process mobilized for action against domestic and foreign terrorist threats to the United States. The destruction in Oklahoma City testified grimly to the vulnerability of democratic societies to terrorism, given the freedom to travel and associate that they accord to those within their borders, the ease with which the ingredients for bombs such as that used in Oklahoma City can be obtained, and the modern revolutions in transportation and communications that enable transnational terrorists to operate ever more easily and even to network with one another.

Within the same week as the bombing in Oklahoma City, a gas attack in a Tokyo subway attributed to a Japanese Buddhist cult hospitalized four hundred people, and in Canada, the bombing of the historic provincial legislative building in Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island killed one person in an incident feared to be a copycat act inspired by the Oklahoma City tragedy. Most ominously, by the end of April, a U.S. State Department report titled Patterns of Terrorism: 1994 noted the increasing tendency of international terrorists to develop ties with domestic groups, including the Mafia and drug gangs in the United States. The future, intelligence analysts concluded, is apt to be one of more, not less, terrorism, with terrorists placing greater emphasis on mass casualties than had been the case historically. This prediction was borne out by a number of later terrorist attacks, including the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., which killed more than 3,000; the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings, which killed 191; and the London subway bombings of July 7, 2005, which killed 52.

The Omnibus Counterterrorism Act of 1995, Omnibus Counterterrorism Act (1995) previously placed before Congress by Bill Clinton’s presidential administration as a response to the growing menace of international terrorism, initially benefited from the events in Oklahoma City. Congressional leaders vowed to join with the White House in a bipartisan effort to pass the measure, and provisions were added to give the bill a wider reach. Boasts were made that the enlarged, $1.5 billion bill would be enacted by the end of May. The wheels of the U.S. political system, however, like those of justice, grind very sluggishly. Slowed by opposition from domestic Muslim American and militia lobbyists, who attacked the bill as an unconstitutional restraint on individual freedoms, the bill came to a halt in May, 1995, when the Senate rejected the president’s proposal to permit emergency roving wiretaps in cases involving terrorism or potential terrorism, and Republicans saddled the bill with the capital punishment debate by including in it exceedingly stringent curbs on death penalty appeals.

As a consequence, nearly a year after the Oklahoma City bombing, with the suspects still awaiting trial, the political process had not produced a single piece of counterterrorism legislation. The wheels of justice do turn, however, if slowly. McVeigh was eventually convicted on eleven federal charges and was sentenced to death on June 13, 1997; he was executed on June 11, 2001. Terry Nichols was convicted of manslaughter and of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, although he was found innocent on the count of the use of such a weapon. He was sentenced to life in prison on June 4, 1998. In 2004, Nichols was also found guilty on 160 counts of murder in Oklahoma state court, but he was spared the death sentence owing to a deadlocked jury. In a plea bargain, Fortier testified against both McVeigh and Nichols at their trials, and in 1998 he was sentenced to twelve years in prison and a fine of $200,000 for failing to alert authorities to the impending attack. He served only part of his sentence, however; he was released from prison in January, 2006. Murrah Building bombing Terrorist acts Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building bombing

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crenshaw, Martha, ed. Terrorism in Context. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995. Outstanding collection of essays provides informative background on many aspects of terrorism around the world. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hansen, Jon. Oklahoma Rescue. New York: Ballantine, 1995. Human-interest account by one of Oklahoma’s City’s pivotal rescue workers, an assistant fire chief. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Irving, Clive, ed. In Their Name: Dedicated to the Brave and the Innocent, Oklahoma City, April, 1995. New York: Random House, 1995. Official commemorative volume presents recollections of survivors, rescue workers, medical personnel, and others who experienced the events in Oklahoma City as well as essays concerning the bombing and its aftermath. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Linenthal, Edward T. The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Examines the psychic impacts of the bombing for Americans in general as well as for the family members and friends of those lost in the event.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riley, Kevin Jack, and Bruce Hoffman. Domestic Terrorism: A National Assessment of State and Local Preparedness. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 1995. Sixty-six pages of chilling reading prepared for the Department of Justice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Serrano, Richard A. One of Ours: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998. Journalist’s account focuses on McVeigh’s background and role in the bombing.

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