BOSTON — Twenty years ago, I was a college freshman getting ready to go to school when the house around me suddenly shook violently as if a giant fist had pounded the ground outside. It was just after 9 a.m. on April 19, 1995, in my hometown of Oklahoma City, a place known more for tornadoes rumbling across the plains than earthquakes (at least in those days).
Peeking out the window that Wednesday morning, the sky was cloudless and a vivid blue. These are the incongruous details you always seem to remember when something terrible happens. On the television, the local CBS affiliate suddenly broke into programming with a shot from the station’s helicopter as it flew toward downtown Oklahoma City, 10 miles away from where I lived. “There’s been some kind of explosion,” the anchor announced, as the screen showed a thick plume of black smoke rising from the skyline. As the helicopter got closer, the smoke engulfed a single building, as if it were simply a bad fire. But then the aircraft banked and circled around, cutting through the smoke, and suddenly you could see it: The entire facade of a nine-story building had been blown off.
It was the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, a glass and concrete structure that, truth be told, I had never even noticed before, and half of it was gone, ripped apart by what investigators later discovered was a 7,000-pound bomb made of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, diesel fuel and other explosives packed into a Ryder truck.
The images that followed were horrifying and hard to believe: bloodied office workers, covered in plaster, stumbling dazed into the streets; bodies on the ground covered in sheets; and in what became the ironic image of what many quickly called “terror in the heartland,” a firefighter cradling the bloody, lifeless body of a 1-year-old baby who had been in a day care on the building’s second floor. In the end, 168 people were dead and more than 500 injured — the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil until the horror of the 9/11 attacks six years later. April 19, 1995, was Oklahoma City’s 9/11 before we even knew what 9/11 was.
Immediately, the question was who did it and why. The reflexive guess focused on a foreigner, someone from the Middle East determined to strike at the heart of America as payback for wars thousands of miles away. But two days later, we had our answer when Timothy McVeigh, a lanky young man from upstate New York just two days shy of his 27th birthday was marched out of a rural courthouse an hour north of Oklahoma City, where he’d been detained on a traffic violation less than an hour after the bombing. Dressed in an orange jumpsuit with a military buzz cut, McVeigh scowled and squinted in the afternoon sun as the crowd gathered outside the courthouse hurled insults at him, including “baby killer” and “murderer.” McVeigh’s face was on the cover of the next Time magazine, which branded him “The Face of Terror” and warned of the danger of “homegrown” terrorists.
A few months later, I found myself in a courtroom staring at McVeigh, who had been brought to the still-damaged federal courthouse a block away from where the Murrah Building had stood. (It had been demolished about a month after the attack.) At the time, I was working for my college newspaper. I was there as a journalist covering the first big national story of my life, but I was also there because I was curious. I wanted to see for myself what someone accused of doing something so terrible looked like, how he behaved.
When McVeigh was marched into court for his 10-minute hearing, I was surprised at how ordinary he looked, how young he was. He didn’t look like evil incarnate. He looked like some nerdy kid I might see at school. McVeigh was charged with 11 federal counts for the bombing, and when asked to answer, he had the polite and perfunctory manners of the soldier he had once been. “Sir,” McVeigh told the judge in a clear voice. “I plead not guilty.” As he was escorted from the courtroom, all I could wonder was why a young man who looked so normal could ruthlessly murder so many people.
I recalled that moment a few weeks ago as I sat at the federal courthouse in Boston, staring at and asking the same question of another mysterious defendant: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 21-year-old former college student who admitted to and was ultimately convicted earlier this month of bombing the Boston Marathon along with his older brother, Tamerlan. Three people were killed and nearly 300 were injured when two pressure-cooker bombs were detonated near the finish line on April 15, 2013 — two years ago last week.
Unlike the early days after the Oklahoma City bombing, there was no real doubt about whether Tsarnaev was the perpetrator. There was surveillance video of the Tsarnaev brothers walking down Boylston Street with backpacks in tow before the blasts. There was video of their firefight with cops in the Boston suburbs days after the attack while they were on the run. And then there was the image of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, bloodied and wounded by gunfire, climbing out of a boat to surrender to police. By then, Tamerlan was dead, killed when Dzhokhar ran over him with a car earlier that day while fleeing police.
When his federal death penalty trial finally kicked off in March, Tsarnaev’s attorney Judy Clarke didn’t even bother to pretend her client was innocent. “It was him,” she told the jury during her opening argument. And they subsequently agreed — finding Tsarnaev guilty of all 30 charges against him. But after 17 days of testimony in the first phase of the trial, there was still an enduring question that has yet to really be answered: How did this once seemingly normal kid, so popular he was the captain of his high school wrestling team, evolve into a terrorist?
Prosecutors have cast Tsarnaev as a young man with a double life who pretended to be a normal college student with his friends while secretly reading copies of Inspire magazine, the al-Qaida publication that teaches would-be terrorists how to build bombs. The defense has said he was a troubled kid under the influence of his radicalized older brother, Tamerlan, and is expected to explain more of its case when the penalty phase begins Tuesday.
In court, Tsarnaev has offered few clues about what made him do what he did. Like McVeigh, he looks younger in person than pictures and court sketches suggest. He is tall and thin — and seems to have gotten thinner since December, when he made his first public appearance in more than a year as his trial began to ramp up. His face looks different than it did in photos taken before his arrest. Tsarnaev’s left eye appears to no longer fully open, and his face seems pinched or frozen — possible injuries from the gunshot wounds he sustained to the head and face before he surrendered to police.
In court, everyone, including me, stares at him, looking for any clues. But with the exception of a few smiles and conversations with his attorneys, Tsarnaev has remained blank, offering little reaction even to the most gut-wrenching testimony and evidence presented in court. Lately I’ve started to wonder if we will ever really know what was in his head as threw his life away two years ago.
There are many differences between what happened in Oklahoma City and Boston. McVeigh’s case seemed to be purely domestic terrorism, and more than a decade after his execution, there continue to be questions about his links to militias and other fringe elements that many Oklahomans believe played a larger role in his plot than he let on.
The Tsarnaev brothers were immigrants who were influenced by overseas terrorists who have vowed to expand their holy war to America — the kind of modern-day lone wolf terrorists the government increasingly warns Americans about.
But for the many distinctions, there are also similarities. Both McVeigh and Tsarnaev have hinted at what motivated them, and it was generally the same — anger at the government for killing people.
In rambling letters and prison interviews with reporters before he was put to death in June 2001 — just months before his attack would be eclipsed by the actions of 19 ruthless hijackers under the direction of Osama bin Laden — McVeigh said he was trying to avenge the government’s deadly assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993, which killed 76 people.
In a letter to his hometown paper, the Buffalo News, on the eve of his execution, McVeigh called his bombing a “legit tactic,” but he also offered a somewhat hollow apology for what he did. “I’m sorry these people had to lose their lives,” he wrote. “But that’s the nature of the beast.”
Meanwhile, the only clue we have of Tsarnaev’s thinking so far is the blood-stained and gunshot riddled note he scrawled inside the boat where he likely believed he was going to die. It was hardly a manifesto, but it’s the closest thing to an explanation we have from Tsarnaev, who has so far not testified in court and is blocked from giving media interviews. “The U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians, but most of you already know that,” Tsarnaev wrote. “As a Muslim, I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished. We Muslims are one body. You hurt one, you hurt us all… I don’t like killing. It is forbidden in Islam, but due to said [illegible], it is allowed.”
While McVeigh and Tsarnaev shared a grievance against the government, it’s the question of how they got there that remains the most intriguing and still the hardest to understand. Many people are angry at the government or hold radical beliefs, but what drives people to turn to murderous violence?
For all of their differences, McVeigh and the Tsarnaev brothers had one major attribute in common as they began to plot their attacks: personal failure.
McVeigh was a decorated Gulf War veteran who aspired to join the Special Forces but he failed to pass the physical and psychological requirements. Disappointed, he subsequently quit the Army, ending what he thought would be a lifelong career in the military. Back home in New York, he had a breakdown — and the disappointment of his life soon manifested into anger, alienation and the subsequent plot in Oklahoma City.
In Boston, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was an immigrant who had never really assimilated to America. He had bet his life on boxing, hoping to do well enough to join the U.S. Olympic team and earn his citizenship. By all accounts, he was talented and might have made it, but after winning a few regional bouts, he was disqualified from a major tournament because he was not technically an American citizen. With no real job or skills, Tamerlan Tsarnaev struggled. He became increasingly angry, and according to the Boston Globe, he complained to his mother about hearing “voices” in his head, which she tried to quell by pushing him to embrace religion.
Meanwhile, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s attorneys have sought to portray their client as a normal teenager whose life suddenly began to fall apart. His parents moved back to Russia, leaving him with no support network except for his increasingly radicalized brother, and he was flunking out of school. Just weeks before the bombings, the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth had denied his request for financial aid because of his bad grades. Once seen as the most promising member of a troubled immigrant family — Tsarnaev had dreamed of being an engineer or a lawyer— he was now on the brink of becoming a loser.
It’s the allure of terrorism that we’re still trying to understand. McVeigh and the Tsarnaev brothers seemed to view their respective attacks as more than just a statement or revenge against the government. In their twisted worldview, terrorism was a path to redeeming their troubled lives, committing themselves to something that might actually make them somebody.
Twenty years after Oklahoma City and two years after Boston, we are still no closer to truly understanding how to stop terrorists like them.