On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, committing the single most destructive act of domestic terrorism in United States history (U.S. Department of Justice, 2012). The Oklahoma City bombing, and particularly McVeigh's process of radicalization, is an ideal case study for understanding how the ideology of the militia movement is conducive to domestic terrorism, because although McVeigh and his co-conspirators were not acting in the name of any particular militia group, McVeigh's stated intentions as well as his personal history prior to the bombing indicate an ideological alignment with the militia movement. The case of the Oklahoma City bombing justifies the classification of militias as terrorist or potential terrorist organizations, because it demonstrates how the extremist ideology of the militia movement encourages the radicalization of individuals, even if the larger organizations themselves are not directly implicated in terrorist activity. By examining McVeigh's stated motivations for the bombing, and the importance of the government action against the Branch Davidians, one is able to see the connection between McVeigh's actions and the ideology of the militia movement.
To begin, it is necessary to provide a brief overview of the militia movement as such, in order to better contextualize McVeigh's actions and motivations. What sets militia extremists apart from other anti-government ideologies is the movement's organization structure and choice of target. While all domestic terrorist groups are by definition anti-government, militia groups differ in that they view the government as a whole as illegitimate while still maintaining that they represent the interests of the United States. Frequently this perspective is rooted in the view "that the United Nations, -- which they refer to as the New World Order, or now -- has the right to use military forces anywhere in the world," and that the United States government will be complicit in "an inevitable invasion of the U.S. By United Nations forces" (U.S. DOJ, 2011). As such, any actions government actions perceived to have restricted individuals, and particularly the right to bear arms, is viewed an unlawful and illegitimate, and has served as potent motivation for extremist activity, because "many militia extremists view themselves as protecting the U.S. Constitution" (U.S. DOJ, 2011).
In addition to its specific anti-government ideology, the militia movement differs from other anti-government groups in its organizational structure. Militias are "often organized into paramilitary groups that follow a military-style rank hierarchy, [and] tend to stockpile illegal weapons and ammunition, trying illegally to get their hands on fully automatic firearms or attempting to convert weapons to fully automatic" (U.S. DOJ, 2011). As a result of its particular anti-government ideology, the militia movement tends to target the federal government directly. For example, in 2011, the FBI disrupted a plot by members of a militia group calling itself the Hutaree to attack police officers and other government personnel. The militia planned on assassinating police officers, and then staging terrorist attacks at their funerals in the hope of targeting the other police and governmental personnel expected to be in attendance (U.S. DOJ, 2011). Their intention was spark a larger anti-government uprising by inspiring other militias around the country.
Before examining Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing, it will be useful to briefly recap the key elements of the militia movement, because as will be seen, Timothy McVeigh is a prime example of the path individuals can take from participating in larger militia organizations to perpetrating actual acts of terrorism. First, militia groups are motivated by an anti-government ideology that perceives itself as representing the true or legitimate interpretation of the United States Constitution, and as such are aligned against the federal government directly. Secondly, they are organized according to military-style hierarchies, and have an inclination towards stockpiling weapons and ammunition. Finally, they view any perceived government encroachment on the right to bear arms as a violation worthy of violent retribution. All of these elements played a key role in McVeigh's radicalization and ultimate decision to bomb the Oklahoma City Federal Building.
Timothy McVeigh began the journey that would eventually lead to Oklahoma City in 1988, when he entered the United States Army, eventually going on to win a Bronze Star in the first Iraq War (Kraska, 1998, p. 577). However, it seems reasonable to presume that his anti-government sentiment was at least already forming while he was in the military, because almost immediately after being discharged from the Army in 1992 he made his anti-government views known to practically anyone around him (Kraska, 1998, p. 580). He began traveling around the country, and through his contact with fellow former servicemen, he eventually became associated with various militia movements and the so-called Patriot movement, a loose organization of various anti-government groups (U.S. DOJ, 2011). However, although McVeigh expressed his anti-government views well before the attack in Oklahoma, it was not until the 1993 government action against the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas that the speed of his radicalization increased exponentially.
The Branch Davidians were an extremist splinter group of the Seventh Day Adventist wing of Christianity, led by David Koresh, a self-professed prophet. The group owned a ranch near Waco, Texas, and had been stockpiling weapons for some time. When agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms attempted to execute a search warrant, a shootout ensued, leading to a fifty-one day standoff that culminated in a siege that set fire to compound and resulted in the deaths of all seventy-five people inside. While much debate can be made about the suitability of the tactics employed by negotiation and law enforcement personnel, one thing was certain; the siege of the Branch Davidian compound "confirmed irrefutably the extreme right's worst fears: an abrogation of religious and gun-ownership freedoms enforced by a fully militarized federal police" (Kraska, 1998, p. 580). Coupled with the deadly 1992 siege in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, the incident in Waco resulted in widespread growth among the militia movement, as its predictions about a federal takeover seemingly began to come true.
The government action against the Branch Davidians impacted McVeigh especially hard, and he later admitted that the incident in Waco was one of the most important motivators for the attack in Oklahoma. Modeled in part on extremist literature popular within the militia movement, McVeigh justified his bombing by viewing it as revenge for Waco and the first step in taking down a government that was in his view illegitimate. In an explicit reference to the extremist science fiction novel The Turner Diaries, McVeigh planned his attack, which featured a fertilizer bomb parked in a truck outside the Federal Building, for the second anniversary of the Waco siege (the protagonist in The Turner Diaries detonates a fertilizer bomb outside an FBI building on the second anniversary of government "gun raids") (Kraska, 1998, p. 580). The fact that McVeigh was inspired by the literature and ideology of the militia movement is crucial to note, because it demonstrates how the ideology of the larger movement can inspire actual terrorist action, even if the larger organization has no part in the coordination or planning.
In fact, McVeigh's decision to bomb the Federal Building himself was born out of the feeling that "he was surrounded by right-wing ideologies who engaged in 'talk' about resistance to governmental tyranny" but did not take action. As the FBI notes in its discussion of the terrorist threat posed by lone actors, frequently individual perpetrators of terrorism have associated with more organized extremist groups in the past, but may have splintered off after feeling as if the group was not willing enough to engage in violent action (U.S. DOJ, 2011). Thus, while larger militia groups restrained themselves to extremist literature and agitation, McVeigh "followed seriously the prescription of the movement's spiritual leaders for taking action" (Kraska, 1998, p. 580). As a result, even though his actions were not coordinated as part of any larger group within the militia movement, it is impossible to deny that McVeigh's terrorist activities are representative of the logical end-point of extremist militia ideology.
McVeigh's radicalization as a result of the government action in Waco, Texas, coupled with his immersion in the militia movement demonstrates what sociologists and social psychologists call a "threat/opportunity spiral," in which perceived threats create opportunities fro reaction, which in turn precipitate more threats (McBreaty, 2008, p. 1626). The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms' warrant was perceived as a threat by the Branch Davidians, who subsequently took the opportunity to engage in a dramatic and ultimately deadly reaction. In turn, the Branch Davidians' stockpiling of weapons and refusal to submit to the warrant justified further government action, thus increasing the threat to the Branch Davidians and the perceived threat to the militia movement. As a result, McVeigh's decision to attack the Federal Building represents the response to this perceived threat.
In fact, it seems as if the only reason the bombing did not continue the spiral (as the government response was swift and overwhelming)…