Three years after the attack, in an essay for Vanity Fair titled “Shredding the Bill of Rights,” Gore Vidal presented a more complete examination of McVeigh’s background and motives than the one-dimensional depiction of him in the media as, in Vidal’s words, “the personification of evil. Of motiveless malice.”
Upon reading the article, Timothy McVeigh wrote to Vidal from prison, and they exchanged letters over the next months. As the date of his execution approached, McVeigh invited Vidal to be among the witnesses to his death at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. Vidal was living in Italy at the time and unable to attend.
Soon after the execution, Gore Vidal wrote an essay titled “The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh” which was published in the September 2001 issue of Vanity Fair — the issue that was in circulation when what is now the deadliest terror attack inside the United States occurred.
Both articles are available online. Here are a few excerpts:
From Gore Vidal’s 1998 essay, Shredding the Bill of Rights, re-published later in the book, The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000:
The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was not unlike Pearl Harbor, a great shock to an entire nation and, one hopes, a sort of wake-up call to the American people that all is not well with us. As usual, the media responded in the only way they know how. Overnight, one Timothy McVeigh became the personification of evil. Of motiveless malice. There was the usual speculation about confederates. Grassy knollsters. But only one other maniac was named. Terry Nichols; he was found guilty of “conspiring” with McVeigh, but he was not in on the slaughter itself.
A journalist, Richard A. Serrano, has just published One of Ours: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing. Like everyone else, I fear, I was sick of the subject. Nothing could justify the murder of those 168 men, women, and children, none of whom had, as far as we know, anything at all to do with the federal slaughter at Waco, the ostensible reason for McVeigh’s fury. So why write such a book? Serrano hardly finds McVeigh sympathetic, but he does manage to make him credible in an ominously fascinating book.
[During his service in the Army during the Gulf War,] McVeigh writes a friend, “We’ve got these starving kids and sometimes adults coming up to us begging for food…. It’s really ‘trying’ emotionally. It’s like the puppy dog at the table; but much worse. The sooner we leave here the better. I can see how the guys in Vietnam were getting killed by children.” Serrano notes, “At the close of the war, a very popular war, McVeigh had learned that he did not like the taste of killing innocent people. He spat into the sand at the thought of being forced to hurt others who did not hate him any more than he them.”
Finally, as he was about to be sentenced, the court asked him if he would like to speak. He did. He rose and said. “I wish to use the words of Justice Brandeis dissenting in Olmstead to speak for me. He wrote, ‘Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.’” Then McVeigh was sentenced to death by the government.
Those present were deeply confused by McVeigh’s quotation. How could the Devil quote so saintly a justice? I suspect that he did it in the same spirit that Iago answered Othello when asked why he had done what he had done: “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: from this time forth I never will speak word.” Now we know, too: or as my grandfather used to say back in Oklahoma, “Every pancake has two sides.”
From The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh, which appeared in the September 2001 issue of Vanity Fair:
Although McVeigh was soon to indicate that he had acted in retaliation for what had happened at Waco (he had even picked the second anniversary of the slaughter, April 19, for his act of retribution), our government’s secret police, together with its allies in the Media, put, as it were, a heavy fist upon the scales. There was to be only one story: one man of incredible innate evil wanted to destroy innocent lives for no reason other than a spontaneous joy in evildoing. From the beginning, it was ordained that McVeigh was to have no coherent motive for what he had done other than a Shakespearean motiveless malignity. Iago is now back in town, with a bomb, not a handkerchief. More to the point, he and the prosecution agreed that he had no serious accomplices.
I sat on an uncomfortable chair, facing a camera [in Italy, in May 2001, waiting to be interviewed live on a American television]. Generators hummed amid the delphiniums. Good Morning America was first. I had been told that Diane Sawyer would be questioning me from New York, but ABC has a McVeigh “expert,” one Charles Gibson, and he would do the honors. Our interview would be something like four minutes. Yes, I was to be interviewed In Depth. This means that only every other question starts with “Now, tell us, briefly … ” Dutifully, I told, briefly, how it was that McVeigh, whom I had never met, happened to invite me to be one of the five chosen witnesses to his execution.
Briefly, it all began in the November 1998 issue of Vanity Fair. I had written a piece about “the shredding of our Bill of Rights.” I cited examples of I.R.S. seizures of property without due process of law, warrantless raids and murders committed against innocent people by various drug-enforcement groups, government collusion with agribusiness’s successful attempts to drive small farmers out of business, and so on. (For those who would like further evidence of a government running amok, turn to page 397 of my The Last Empire.) Then, as a coda, I discussed the illegal but unpunished murders at Ruby Ridge, Idaho (a mother and child and dog had been killed in cold blood by the F.B.I.); then, the next year, Waco. The Media expressed little outrage in either case. Apparently, the trigger words had not been spoken. Trigger words? Remember The Manchurian Candidate? George Axelrod’s splendid 1962 film, where the brainwashed (by North Koreans) protagonist can only be set in murderous motion when the gracious garden-club lady, played by Angela Lansbury, says, “Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?”
Since we had been told for weeks that the Branch Davidian leader, David Koresh, was not only a drug dealer but the sexual abuser of the 27 children in his compound, the maternal Ms. Reno in essence decreed: Better that they all be dead than defiled. Hence, the attack. Later, 11 members of the Branch Davidian Church were put on trial for the “conspiracy to commit murder” of the federal agents who had attacked them. The jury found all 11 innocent on that charge. But after stating that the defendants were guilty of attempted murder—the very charge of which they had just been acquitted—the judge sentenced eight innocent church members up to 40 years on lesser charges. One disgusted juror said, “The wrong people were on trial.” Show Time!
Personally, I was sufficiently outraged to describe in detail what had actually happened. Meanwhile, the card players of 1998 were busy shuffling and dealing. Since McVeigh had been revealed as evil itself, no one was interested in why he had done what he had done. But then “why” is a question the Media are trained to shy away from. Too dangerous. One might actually learn why something had happened and become thoughtful…
When McVeigh, on appeal in a Colorado prison, read what I had written he wrote me a letter and …
But I’ve left you behind in the Ravello garden of Klingsor, where, live on television, I mentioned the unmentionable word “why,” followed by the atomic trigger word “Waco.” Charles Gibson, 3,500 miles away, began to hyperventilate. “Now, wait a minute … ” he interrupted. But I talked through him. Suddenly I heard him say, “We’re having trouble with the audio.” Then he pulled the plug that linked ABC and me. The soundman beside me shook his head. “Audio was working perfectly. He just cut you off.” So, in addition to the governmental shredding of Amendments 4, 5, 6, 8, and 14, Mr. Gibson switched off the journalists’ sacred First.
It is now June 11, a hot, hazy morning here in Ravello. We’ve just watched Son of Show Time in Terre Haute, Indiana. CNN duly reported that I had not been able to be a witness, as McVeigh had requested: the attorney general had given me too short a time to get from here to there. I felt somewhat better when I was told that, lying on the gurney in the execution chamber, he would not have been able to see any of us through the tinted glass windows all around him. But then members of the press who were present said that he had deliberately made “eye contact” with his witnesses and with them. He did see his witnesses, according to Cate McCauley, who was one. “You could tell he was gone after the first shot,” she said. She had worked on his legal case for a year as one of his defense investigators.
I asked about his last hours. He had been searching for a movie on television and all he could find was Fargo, for which he was in no mood. Certainly he died in character; that is, in control. The first shot, of sodium pentothal, knocks you out. But he kept his eyes open. The second shot, of pancuronium bromide, collapsed his lungs. Always the survivalist, he seemed to ration his remaining breaths. When, after four minutes, he was officially dead, his eyes were still open, staring into the ceiling camera that was recording him “live” for his Oklahoma City audience.
McVeigh made no final statement, but he had copied out, it appeared from memory, “Invictus,” a poem by W. E. Henley (1849–1903). Among Henley’s numerous writings was a popular anthology called Lyra Heroica (1892), about those who had done selfless heroic deeds. I doubt if McVeigh ever came across it, but he would, no doubt, have identified with a group of young writers, among them Kipling, who were known as “Henley’s young men,” forever standing on burning decks, each a master of his fate, captain of his soul.
Both of these essays were published in the book, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace by Gore Vidal.
- Jun. 11, 2011