Toward the end of the last century but one, Richard Wagner made a visit to the southern Italian town of Ravello, where he was shown the gardens of the thousand-year-old Villa Rufolo. “Maestro,” asked the head gardener, “do not these fantastic gardens ’neath yonder azure sky that blends in such perfect harmony with yonder azure sea closely resemble those fabled gardens of Klingsor where you have set so much of your latest interminable opera, Parsifal? Is not this vision of loveliness your inspiration for Klingsor?” Wagner muttered something in German. “He say,” said a nearby translator, “‘How about that?’”
How about that indeed, I thought, as I made my way toward a corner of those fabled gardens, where ABC-TV’s Good Morning America and CBS’s Early Show had set up their cameras so that I could appear “live” to viewers back home in God’s country.
This was last May. In a week’s time “the Oklahoma City Bomber,” a decorated hero of the Gulf War, one of Nature’s Eagle Scouts, Timothy McVeigh, was due to be executed by lethal injection in Terre Haute, Indiana, for being, as he himself insisted, the sole maker and detonator of a bomb that blew up a federal building in which died 168 men, women, and children. This was the greatest massacre of Americans by an American since two years earlier, when the federal government decided to take out the compound of a Seventh-Day Adventist cult near Waco, Texas. The Branch Davidians, as the cultists called themselves, were a peaceful group of men, women, and children living and praying together in anticipation of the end of the world, which started to come their way on February 28, 1993. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, exercising its mandate to “regulate” firearms, refused all invitations from cult leader David Koresh to inspect his licensed firearms. The A.T.F. instead opted for fun. More than 100 A.T.F. agents, without proper warrants, attacked the church’s compound while, overhead, at least one A.T.F. helicopter fired at the roof of the main building. Six Branch Davidians were killed that day. Four A.T.F. agents were shot dead, by friendly fire, it was thought.
There was a standoff. Followed by a 51-day siege in which loud music was played 24 hours a day outside the compound. Then electricity was turned off. Food was denied the children. Meanwhile, the Media were briefed regularly on the evils of David Koresh. Apparently, he was making and selling crystal meth; he was also—what else in these sick times?—not a Man of God but a Pedophile. The new attorney general, Janet Reno, then got tough. On April 19 she ordered the F.B.I. to finish up what the A.T.F. had begun. In defiance of the Posse Comitatus Act (a basic bulwark of our fragile liberties that forbids the use of the military against civilians), tanks of the Texas National Guard and the army’s Joint Task Force Six attacked the compound with a gas deadly to children and not too healthy for adults while ramming holes in the building. Some Davidians escaped. Others were shot by F.B.I. snipers. In an investigation six years later, the F.B.I. denied ever shooting off anything much more than a pyrotechnic tear-gas cannister. Finally, during a six-hour assault, the building was set fire to and then bulldozed by Bradley armored vehicles. God saw to it that no F.B.I. man was hurt while more than 80 cult members were killed, of whom 27 were children. It was a great victory for Uncle Sam, as intended by the F.B.I., whose code name for the assault was Show Time.
It wasn’t until May 14, 1995, that Janet Reno, on 60 Minutes, confessed to second thoughts. “I saw what happened, and knowing what happened, I would not do it again.” Plainly, a learning experience for the Florida daughter of a champion lady alligator rassler.
The April 19, 1993, show at Waco proved to be the largest massacre of Americans by their own government since 1890, when a number of Native Americans were slaughtered at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Thus the ante keeps upping.
Although McVeigh was soon to indicate that he had acted in retaliation for what had happened at Waco (he had even picked the second anniversary of the slaughter, April 19, for his act of retribution), our government’s secret police, together with its allies in the Media, put, as it were, a heavy fist upon the scales. There was to be only one story: one man of incredible innate evil wanted to destroy innocent lives for no reason other than a spontaneous joy in evildoing. From the beginning, it was ordained that McVeigh was to have no coherent motive for what he had done other than a Shakespearean motiveless malignity. Iago is now back in town, with a bomb, not a handkerchief. More to the point, he and the prosecution agreed that he had no serious accomplices.
I sat on an uncomfortable chair, facing a camera. Generators hummed amid the delphiniums. Good Morning America was first. I had been told that Diane Sawyer would be questioning me from New York, but ABC has a McVeigh “expert,” one Charles Gibson, and he would do the honors. Our interview would be something like four minutes. Yes, I was to be interviewed In Depth. This means that only every other question starts with “Now, tell us, briefly … ” Dutifully, I told, briefly, how it was that McVeigh, whom I had never met, happened to invite me to be one of the five chosen witnesses to his execution.
Briefly, it all began in the November 1998 issue of Vanity Fair. I had written a piece about “the shredding of our Bill of Rights.” I cited examples of I.R.S. seizures of property without due process of law, warrantless raids and murders committed against innocent people by various drug-enforcement groups, government collusion with agribusiness’s successful attempts to drive small farmers out of business, and so on. (For those who would like further evidence of a government running amok, turn to page 397 of my The Last Empire.) Then, as a coda, I discussed the illegal but unpunished murders at Ruby Ridge, Idaho (a mother and child and dog had been killed in cold blood by the F.B.I.); then, the next year, Waco. The Media expressed little outrage in either case. Apparently, the trigger words had not been spoken. Trigger words? Remember The Manchurian Candidate? George Axelrod’s splendid 1962 film, where the brainwashed (by North Koreans) protagonist can only be set in murderous motion when the gracious garden-club lady, played by Angela Lansbury, says, “Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?”
Since we had been told for weeks that the Branch Davidian leader, David Koresh, was not only a drug dealer but the sexual abuser of the 27 children in his compound, the maternal Ms. Reno in essence decreed: Better that they all be dead than defiled. Hence, the attack. Later, 11 members of the Branch Davidian Church were put on trial for the “conspiracy to commit murder” of the federal agents who had attacked them. The jury found all 11 innocent on that charge. But after stating that the defendants were guilty of attempted murder—the very charge of which they had just been acquitted—the judge sentenced eight innocent church members up to 40 years on lesser charges. One disgusted juror said, “The wrong people were on trial.” Show Time!
Personally, I was sufficiently outraged to describe in detail what had actually happened. Meanwhile, the card players of 1998 were busy shuffling and dealing. Since McVeigh had been revealed as evil itself, no one was interested in why he had done what he had done. But then “why” is a question the Media are trained to shy away from. Too dangerous. One might actually learn why something had happened and become thoughtful. I wrote in these pages:
For Timothy McVeigh, [Waco and Ruby Ridge] became the symbol of [federal] oppression and murder. Since he was now suffering from an exaggerated sense of justice, not a common American trait, he went to war pretty much on his own and ended up slaughtering more innocents than the Feds had at Waco. Did he know what he was doing when he blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City because it contained the hated [Feds]? McVeigh remained silent throughout his trial. Finally, as he was about to be sentenced, the court asked him if he would like to speak. He did. He rose and said, “I wish to use the words of Justice Brandeis dissenting in Olmstead to speak for me. He wrote, ‘Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.’” Then McVeigh was sentenced to death by the government.