We spent the final days of 2013 in Oklahoma City, celebrating the wedding of a “nephew”, son of a family to which my family has been closely related for generations, in friendship if not in DNA. It was my first time in Oklahoma.
When we’re in a new city, we walk around and go to museums. Walking around is not so easy in many American cities. There were no sidewalks on the busy road near our hotel. But we could drive to a small park in the center of Oklahoma City. There is a wide grassy field, a ring of trees, and a broad reflecting pool at the former site of the Murrah Building. There are also jagged concrete walls, the few pieces still standing 19 years after it was blown up by Timothy McVeigh on the morning of April 19, 1995, with the help of Terry Nichols and the encouragement of thousands of Americans in white supremacist, Christian Identity, government-hating organizations. In carefully planned rows facing the pool, within the footprint of the Murrah Building, sit 168 empty chairs with the names of everyone killed that day.
The park was peaceful. A park ranger answered our questions with clear and thoughtful stories. But we had even more questions, the pool had floating ice and the National Memorial Museum stood just a few feet away, in the damaged and repaired former Journal Record newspaper building.
We sat in a small room and listened to a recording of the Water Resources Board hearing that had begun at 9:00 on April 19. Unlike the woman, the “bureaucrat”, who was explaining the proceedings to all the participants, we knew what was coming. The explosion was still a shock, but it prepared me to see the hundreds of photographs of American faces, amidst fire and rubble, that the Museum uses to convey the human disaster that followed. In one room, a photo of each of the victims is displayed.
The park looked different when we came out of the museum. The chairs now had faces and personalities. The whole city looked different. We knew something more, felt something more, about the buildings in downtown Oklahoma City, about the people who lived in and near the city, about violent things that even a wedding can’t make you forget.
We visited another unique museum, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, at the top of the list of the state’s top museums. It used to be the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, and great cowboys are all around, real ones and Hollywood imitations, statues and paintings and artifacts from 200 years of the Western cowboy experience. The name has been changed and now both cowboys and Indians are honored. Towering above visitors as they enter the building is James Earle Fraser’s gigantic sculpture of a muscular Plains Indian, at “The End of the Trail”. The colorful, varied, and intricate art of and about Native Americans mingles with cowboy themes, just as they lived next to each other for hundreds of years.
Most of that history was violent. Cowboys and Indians might have mostly been competitors, but it was soldiers who drove Native Americans westward across the country, on behalf of the US government. Those who didn’t die were confined and their culture was attacked, to be replaced by the civilization of the whites.
For Native Americans, the US government was the enemy. It carried out the popular wishes of white America, against Natives, against Africans and their descendants, against immigrants, especially if they were not white.
Now all those excluded people are part of America. White America and non-White America have been coming to terms my whole life, and that process will continue.
Some people oppose the full and equal inclusion of all Americans. Timothy McVeigh was the deadliest in a long line of Americans who have used public terror to attack “the government”. By “government”, McVeigh and people who share his ideas actually mean the whole American society whose government has changed so much in the last half century.
McVeigh followed the bible of right-wing fanatics, the “Turner Diaries”, which claim that there is no way to destroy “the Jewish-liberal-democratic-equalitarian plague . . . without hurting many thousands of innocent people.” When McVeigh planned his crime, he set out to kill the government employees who help the elderly get their Social Security payments, who recruit for our armed forces, who enforce our laws.
McVeigh said, “I believe we are slowly turning into a socialist government. The government is continually growing bigger and more powerful and the people need to prepare to defend themselves against government control.” You can hear similar words from a whole flock of conservative politicians. You can read in your local paper about “government bureaucrats” who are responsible for America’s decline.
Government can be the enemy, as it was for the Native Americans. But it isn’t any more. Those who can’t tell the difference create the atmosphere for fanatics to take up violence against people who do our public work, people like us.
Taking Back Our Lives