How Americans respond to crisis

Chicago Tribune

Twenty-five years ago Sunday, on April 19, 1995, a vengeful 26-year-old named Timothy McVeigh used his cigarette lighter to ignite a fuse. Then he walked away from the scene of his imminent crime. He had scouted potential targets in five states before deciding that this site’s open surroundings would give news cameras clean angles to photograph his handiwork.

McVeigh’s detonation disrupted this nation’s holiday from history after the collapse of the long-threatening Soviet Union. With his assault on the United States government — an Oklahoma bomb blast that registered 3.0 on seismologists’ Richter scale — McVeigh taught a generation of Americans to fear again: Was this breathtaking massacre the first salvo of a widespread rebellion?

As they worked through the terrible shock, though, Americans by the millions taught themselves something else: that when a crisis arises, resolve and resilience usually defeat it.

That’s as useful a lesson during, say, a lethal pandemic, as it has been often in our past, and surely will be in our future.

‘Domestic terrorism’

Two years later in 1997, on the eve of McVeigh’s trial for what then was this nation’s most deadly mass murder, Newsweek magazine reconstructed the horror of that lit fuse:

“The first piece of evidence fell out of the sky. At about 9 a.m. on April 19, 1995, Richard Nichols, a maintenance man in Oklahoma City, was huddled on the floor of his car, cowering from an enormous blast that seemed to sweep over him like a prairie twister, when he heard a strange whooshing noise. It sounded, he thought, like a giant boomerang spinning right at him. With a crash, a heavy rod of twisted metal smashed into the hood of his car, shattering the windshield. It was a truck axle. It had belonged to a Ryder truck filled with two tons of explosives that had, moments earlier, transformed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building into a mass morgue. … For 22 months, the most massive federal investigation since the assassination of John F. Kennedy has been quietly collecting evidence, and the feds believe that the detail weaves around Tim McVeigh like a noose.”

The lean Gulf War veteran and militia movement zealot saw himself as a patriot fighting a lonesome war. He had selected April 19 to commemorate the fiery federal siege two years earlier at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. His Oklahoma City bombing also came 220 years to the day after Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the American Revolution.

For lack of more sophisticated explosives, McVeigh had packed the yellow truck’s cargo box with widely available ammonium nitrate fertilizer, diesel fuel and nitromethane solvent.

The blast’s concussion stripped a glassy facade off the Murrah Building. Without that wall to hold them in place, interior floor plates pancaked downward. Survivors would talk of a terrible harmony — the bass rumble of a structure collapsing and the soprano shrieks of victims crushed or dismembered.

Reach of a rebellion

The horrors of Sept. 11, 2001, eventually would dwarf the Oklahoma City casualty count: The crime that FBI agents would code-name OKBOMB killed 168 men, women and children, injured 680 others and destroyed or damaged 324 structures — some of them 16 blocks away. In succeeding days and nights, relatives of the victims stood vigil at a makeshift fence, peering into the building’s exposed skeleton and murmuring about the destruction of so many lives.

McVeigh’s little army included only a handful of like-minded villains. Yet he managed to sow fright in communities across the U.S.: If this could happen in down-home Oklahoma … .

Yes, Oklahomans never will recover; survivors of the bombing and others with broken hearts routinely visit the placid memorial where the Murrah Building stood.

But most Americans frightened by the slaughter of innocents did recover. They came to realize that, in their early panic, they had vastly exaggerated the reach of McVeigh’s influence.

Peril of complacency

McVeigh is no longer with us. He was tried and convicted in Denver, then executed in 2001 at a federal prison in Indiana. A small number of victims’ relatives, selected from a large group who had submitted written applications, watched his peaceful death by lethal injection. Back in Oklahoma, hundreds of the victims’ relatives and survivors gathered to watch a closed-circuit telecast. News accounts noted that as McVeigh squinted without visible emotion toward the execution chamber’s observation room, one woman pressed against the glass a photo of her son, killed by McVeigh’s blast.

Oklahoma City helped teach a generation of Americans the danger of complacency — the peril of ignoring a broad range of threats to this country. It’s a lesson that global terror groups have delivered to cities on other continents: Evildoers quietly beaver away, contemplating soft targets. ‘Twill ever be thus.

But the human terrorist’s reach is limited. A more vigilant America — schooled that if you see something, say something — had to relearn the lesson after 9/11: America has to keep reminding itself that while it cannot prevent every crisis, for two and a half centuries it eventually has found its bearing and recovered.

Coping with crises

The emergencies of the last quarter-century built resolve and resilience that, if we Americans again deploy them, should help overcome the current pandemic.

Not that America is a better country because its cities endured OKBOMB or 9/11 or — more broadly but less violently — the jobs-destroying Great Recession that ended in 2009.

More and different crises surely will test Americans, as the COVID-19 outbreak now demonstrates. With each one we mourn our losses, harden our protections and reassure ourselves that we will find smart ways to cope.

Chicago Tribune

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