When you walk off the plane in Oklahoma City, the first things you see are windows etched with images of famous Oklahomans — Woody Guthrie, Will Rogers, James Garner. When you get downtown, the “Guardian” stands watch atop the dome of the state capitol, a powerful bronze statue of a Native American warrior. All around you the state’s heritage unfolds — even in the prairie that spreads to all horizons and the enormous skies above. After all, this is Tornado Alley.
It’s also the place whose worst tornado was manmade: the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building.
The killers claimed they blew up the building and murdered 168 people out of American patriotism. But they weren’t patriots. They were anarchists and totalitarians. They didn’t believe in “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” They believed they had the godlike right to destroy innocent lives on a massive scale. Timothy McVeigh parked his Ryder truck beneath what he knew was a day care center. He still lit the fuse and walked away. And he had the arrogance to call it war.
I’ve written before, on my blog and in my novels, about extremism and violence. China Lake is about apocalyptic religion. The Liar’s Lullaby is about fringe political paranoia. As I wrote those novels, the Oklahoma City bombing lurked in the back of my mind. Most of my family lives in OKC. My aunt’s car was blown off the road that day by the force of the blast. She escaped with broken bones. Around the corner, every window in my uncle’s office building shattered on the people inside. They were the lucky ones.
In China Lake, Evan Delaney talks about “the turf of the loners, the outsiders, the digital screamers, a territory of inchoate rage and belief in the rectifying power of kerosene mixed with ammonium nitrate fertilizer.” The people who commit such atrocities haven’t gone away. They’re out there, and they want to watch the world burn.
But they don’t have the final word.
Last week when I was in Oklahoma City I went to the memorial, on the site where the Murrah Building stood. I called it research. But it was really a pilgrimage. The memorial is a place to find grace, and it’s harrowing. The reflecting pool and the field of empty chairs are peaceful but haunting. In one corner of the grounds, the remains of the Murrah Building still stand. They’re nothing but concrete, twisted rebar, and blackened plaster that’s charred half an inch deep. Portions of the fence that was installed to protect the bombing site are still in place, and on it people still leave tokens of remembrance: notes, photos, flags, key rings. The baby shoes are the hardest to look at.
The memorial is also a call to action. See this. Feel its impact. So that from here on, you can do something. Offer compassion, reach out, speak up, and realize we’re all in this together.
Not long ago, on the fifteenth anniversary of the bombing, the London Observer ran a moving feature on Oklahoma City. Reporter Ed Vulliamy wrote:
There was something unique about Oklahoma City’s response to the bombing, which one sensed immediately at the time. The Okies love where they live with good reason: theirs is probably the least pretentious city in the world. They have down-to-earth decency, a rugged decorum, easy-going diligence. These characteristics came into play in the hour of horror, loss and need.
That captures it. My grandmother, Margaret Love, was a lifelong Oklahoman. She raised seven kids in Oklahoma City and helped found the volunteer league at St. Anthony Hospital, where I was born. She worked there every Wednesday for forty years. At her funeral in 2005, a group of several dozen people, mostly women in their seventies and eighties, came to the church wearing their bright red St. Anthony volunteer vests. In the church, some out-of-towners smiled at the cheerful sight. I could almost hear them thinking, Isn’t that sweet.
But they didn’t know. They didn’t understand that those women, who looked gray and fragile and soft, were veterans. Those women had been at the hospital that day. St. Anthony is walking distance from where the Murrah Building stood, and it’s where most of the victims were taken after the bombing. Those women had found themselves in the middle of an unimaginable mass casualty attack — and didn’t flinch. They stood up, and did whatever needed doing, all day, all night, for as long as it took. My grandmother stayed at the hospital ferrying supplies, ferrying people, answering phones, until midnight. She was 84. She told me she’d never felt as despondent about humanity as she did that day, yet at the same time so inspired by people’s selflessness — women and men from all over the city, the state, and the country phoned to ask what they could give: food, blankets, their own blood?
And at the church years later, the volunteers didn’t say anything. They didn’t brag. They came in solidarity with my grandmother. They came to salute a sister.
Today, when you’re in OKC, locals will quietly suggest you visit the memorial. It’s always there, an ache in the city’s heartbeat. But it’s not what the city is about. Nowadays the noise downtown comes from fans around the court, cheering for the Thunder. The basketball arena is the place where Oklahomans get loud. And as usual, they’re doing it to support a team.