Timothy McVeigh, Extremists' New Hero

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The moon hangs over the wreckage of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City in this April 21, 1995 file photo. Extremists are embracing Timothy McVeigh as a patriot and hero, ignoring his act of mass murder in Oklahoma City. Jim Bourg/Files/Reuters

To most Americans, Timothy McVeigh is the perpetrator of the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, a murderer whose 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City took the lives of 168 innocents, children included.

But on the extremist fringes of society (mostly affiliated with the far right), McVeigh has become a hero. That’s according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s brief but troubling new report, “McVeigh Worship: The New Extremist Trend.” 

Related: Four ways Google plans to fight radicalization and extremism

“There seems to be a growing admiration for McVeigh in some extremist circles,” writes the SPCL’s Bill Morlin. He cites several examples of how McVeigh, who was executed in the summer of 2001, has been adopted as a martyr by anti-government extremists—often ones who also harbor white supremacist views.

Most troubling is the example of Jeremy Christian, who in May killed two men in Portland, Oregon, after they confronted him for harassing Muslim women on a train. Morlin notes that Christian had “praised the Oklahoma City bomber in a Facebook post. ‘May all the Gods Bless Timothy McVeigh -- a TRUE PATRIOT!!!’ Christian wrote.”

McVeigh was similarly invoked during the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon between law enforcement and anti-government extremists affiliated with the Bundy clan and its Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.

Morlin points to statements by an Alaska supporter of the anti-government occupiers: “The battle for the rights of the people rages on and it should be assumed that lone wolf patriots may be planning another response to the central government's abuses. Once the fuse is lit, it will be hard to extinguish. There's a place that we all should think about: Oklahoma City.”

Morlin sites several other examples of violent extremists who’ve been found to show sympathies to McVeigh, including that of Bryan Moles, who went to Washington, D.C., in May with an assault rifle, in an apparent attempt to harm President Trump. He is said to have expressed admiration for McVeigh; before leaving his home in Pennsylvania, Moles left $4.19 in his bank account, which Morlin posits may have been a reference to the date of the Oklahoma City bombing: April 19, 1995 (the next day, April 20, is popular with extremists because it is Adolf Hitler's birthday).

Some affinity for McVeigh can also be found on social media:

On the website for The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi outlet, one user wrote—in response to a video titled “The False Equivalence of Timothy McVeigh”—that “McVeigh was a patriot turned dupe.”

At the same time, the right has tried to tie McVeigh to leftist extremism. In 2011, for example, a writer for Breitbart News said of Occupy Wall Street, “Something tells me Timothy McVeigh would fit right in with this bunch.”

Perhaps most confoundingly of all, McVeigh was praised in 2001 by the writer Gore Vidal, who sometimes delighted in an intellectualized, pre-digital version of what has come to be known as trolling.

Speaking about McVeigh’s execution at a book festival in Edinburgh, Vidal described the troubled young man's “overdeveloped sense of justice” and suggested that McVeigh “did not do it.”

That view is not widely shared.