On Monday night, the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow will air, for the first time ever, audiotapes of Timothy McVeigh giving his own account of why he detonated a truck filled with explosives in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. It was our country's most destructive and deadly act of terrorism on U.S. soil prior to September 11. The bombing murdered 168 people, including more than two dozen children under the age of 6. More than 800 people were injured; damage was estimated at $652 million. Yet, McVeigh's recorded voice, as if speaking from the grave almost nine years after his execution, says, "I feel no shame for it."
Maddow has said the program is designed to put antigovernment extremism in perspective. "It doesn't have to lead to violence, but it can and it has," says Maddow in promotional spots. "We ignore this, our own very recent history of antigovernment violence and the dangers of domestic terrorism, at our peril." According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of antigovernment extremist groups spiked from 149 in 2008 to 512 (127 of them militias) in 2009.
The tapes will undoubtedly offer insights into the twisted mind of McVeigh. But some victims of his attack, reached by NEWSWEEK, say it will grant further notoriety to a voice that should remain silent.
Dr. Paul Heath, a counseling psychologist in the Veterans Affairs office at the time of the attack and founder of the Oklahoma City Murrah Building Survivors Association, says that the first thing survivors wanted from McVeigh before his death was an apology. "But he didn't say a word. He just looked into the camera and died." The second? "To never hear from him again. And we got that, except for these tapes." Heath helped several survivors exit the building, including one man who was carrying one of his own eyes in his left hand. Heath, who had an encounter with McVeigh days before the bombing, says he will watch the broadcast but doubts other survivors will.
He still has questions for McVeigh, and even gave some to a reporter who interviewed the domestic terrorist years ago. One question: "Why did you flaunt yourself on the Thursday before the bombing? Did you get some sadistic pleasure seeing all of us alive?" When McVeigh came to Heath supposedly looking for work, Heath asked him if he was related to a McVey family that he knew. "McVeigh stuck his long fingers in my face, saying, 'Remember my name is McV-E-I-G-H.' He was delusional." But Heath worked with a lot of people with posttraumatic stress disorder, suspecting McVeigh also suffered from it. "I understand a TV reporter's obligation to share this. I don't have a problem with that. But this won't tell me anything I don't already know."
Attorney Beth Wilkinson was the prosecutor who argued for the death penalty for McVeigh. "Obviously I am gratified to know he'll be admitting to what he was convicted of," says Wilkinson. (McVeigh never admitted guilt during his trial or sentencing). "That said," she adds, "I find it disturbing that these tapes will be played at such length, giving him—once again—a platform." She hopes that the two-hour segment will provide a perspective on extremism, not just McVeigh's. (According to an MSNBC press release, "Survivors and family members of the bombing victims are given a voice in the film, bravely stepping forward to offer the final word on the true impact and meaning of McVeigh's brutal attack.") Before his execution, says Wilkinson, McVeigh agreed to interviews, including 60 Minutes, on the condition that he not specifically address the crime. "At least now he will be getting press—if that's how to describe it—for what he actually did."
Dennis Purifoy, 58, was a manager in the Social Security office where 16 co-workers and 24 customers were killed, but he was in the safer, east side of the building at the time of the explosion. He helped several people get out of the building, and tried to help workers who were gravely injured and then died. "I'm a Maddow fan and have the utmost respect for her; if anyone can put his actions into context she can," says Purifoy. "But I have mixed feelings about this, mostly negative. In addition to McVeigh being a coward and a liar, you have to remember at the time of those tapes, Terry Nichols was still in the system. In the book, McVeigh went out his way to make him look less culpable." Purifoy says he'll tape the show. "I don't think I've ever really heard his voice. I don't know that I could connect a voice to his face. But the main thing is that that man took his secrets to the grave."
Will Marling, executive director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) says our media obsession with criminals "gives perpetrators prominence; it's the victims who need to be remembered." He says victims can be retraumatized by "trigger events" related to a crime, like anniversaries, court proceedings, parole hearings, and executions. "If the point is education, why not have victims hear the tapes first and then decide if there is educational value? The victims are almost always the last to be consulted." He expects the tapes, like other trigger events, to cause deep upset. "It brings it all up again for the victim. It's heartbreaking to a watch a person go right back to that day."
That's why Dianne Dooley probably won't watch on Monday night. Dooley was on the stairwell of the third floor of the Murrah Building when the explosion went off. Bloodied and in shock, she made it to the hospital, her foot damaged, her hand crushed, her arm broken in 12 places. After six surgeries, months of physical therapy and 15 years, she still can't read about McVeigh. Dooley has permanently lost 50 percent of the use of her hand, and gave up her beloved hobby of softball long ago. When he pops up on her TV screen, her stomach churns. "Ugh. I saw a clip about [the MSNBC program] this morning, and I just…kind of…walked away," she says, laughing a bit nervously. Dooley says there is an awkwardness among survivors, some thinking everyone should move on, others understanding the need to talk. "I don't know that we'll ever understand him, and I don't think hearing from him will prevent someone else from doing the same."