June 12, 2001 -- Militia groups will not look back upon the execution of Timothy McVeigh as a day of mourning.
Despite the FBI's last-minute handover of previously undisclosed documents in his case and the courts' refusal to grant a second delay of his execution, McVeigh's death will not be considered a day of infamy like the fatal 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, or the 1992 killing of white separatist Randy Weaver's wife and son during the standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
"We or no one that we know of feel he is a martyr for anything," said John Trochmann, spokesman for the Militia of Montana. "To me, executing him is like throwing away and destroying evidence, as if the tracks are probably leading too close to home."
The debacle over more than 4,000 pages of FBI documents renewed suspicion that the government conspires to wipe out its opponents by any means necessary. But it did not improve McVeigh's standing among militia groups like Trochmann's. To them, McVeigh is not a martyr; he is a patsy for the government who almost single-handedly killed the anti-government "Patriot" movement's momentum with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
"What would we have had to gain from blowing up public property?" asked Trochmann. "Who would gain anything unless someone wanted to pass some new type of anti-militia legislation?"
The Bumbling Government Patsy
At the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, there were close to 1,000 active militias, according to Joe Roy, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which tracks the activities of militia groups. However, since the bombing, militias have dwindled to 194 active today. The Oklahoma City bombing was a "public relations nightmare" for the militia movement, Roy said, scaring off moderate extremists and prompting others to take a lower profile.
"In general, the movement has distanced itself [from McVeigh] because of the heinousness of the act, the killing of 19 children among the 168 who died," said Roy. "McVeigh's few supporters — the few that are out there in the right wing — will say that they don't condone what he did, but they can understand why. Only members of the extreme right support him."
Experts say most members of the militia believe McVeigh was not really one of them — they believe he is really part of a government conspiracy to squash the Patriot movement.
"To understand the way these people feel about McVeigh, you have to understand the way they think," said Evan McKenzie, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "They think of themselves as very powerful, very important vanguards of the revolution that the government wants to bring down."
"The radical right sees McVeigh as a government patsy, an [Lee Harvey] Oswald-type who did not commit the crimes he was accused of," McKenzie said. "They believe that it was set up to appear as if McVeigh planned it himself."
The militias, McKenzie said, are suspicious of McVeigh because he was once a member of the Army and a Gulf War veteran. To them, this is an indication that McVeigh is a government loyalist despite his claims to the contrary.
Even McVeigh's arrest makes them skeptical. He was arrested when a highway patrol officer stopped his truck because it was missing its plates.
"They see this and they say, 'Come on! We don't do things that way,'" McKenzie said. "And McVeigh didn't even go down shooting — that's not a martyr, that's not a hero. It's too bumbling, too unbelievable. They think this is a guy who wanted to be caught."
Militia Bombing Theories
Militias have various theories on McVeigh's true involvement in Oklahoma City bombing. Some believe McVeigh was supposed to have been killed in the blast but somehow survived. Others believe he was part of a government cover-up in the bombing.
Radical right-wing militia members believe the fertilizer bomb McVeigh used could not have caused the extensive damage seen in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. They believe there was another bomb planted inside the building by the government that caused the real damage. McVeigh and his bomb just acted as a decoy.
"Why on earth would the government blow up the building? Because they wanted to create public outrage, they wanted the public angry at anti-government groups, angry enough so that support behind an anti-terrorist bill [the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act] would swell and get passed at the bombing," McKenzie said.
Some militia groups do not even believe that McVeigh will really be executed, McKenzie said. Militia members believe the government will somehow make it "appear" as if McVeigh is dead and that he could be put under a government protection program.
However, if McVeigh is really a government fall guy, why did he admit to the bombing in the book American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing and call the dead 19 children "collateral damage"? Militia members, experts say, believe he is either following orders or has been brainwashed.
Militia Momentum: The Bombing’s 169th Victim
At the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, the militia believed momentum was swinging its direction. Experts say the anti-government movement was slowly winning the public's support: vivid reports and images of mothers and children perishing at fiery showdowns at Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidian compound made some people sympathize with the movement and believe the government would do anything to crush its detractors.
That all stopped with the Oklahoma City bombing. Trochmann said the Oklahoma City bombing brought unwelcome publicity to his Militia of Montana and spooked some militia leaders.
"To say we've taken a lot of heat is an understatement," said Trochmann. "Once McVeigh's connection to militias became public, the media descended upon us here in Noxon and it caused a few of the leaders to bail out. Many of the other groups we knew of went underground."
The leveling of the Alfred P. Murrah building, the massive body count, images of bloody children being carried out of the rubble — even the date on which the attack occurred (April 19, the anniversary of end of the siege at Waco) — made everyone involved in a militia look like a radical terrorists.
And thanks to McVeigh, the militia lost some of its moderate sympathizers and members.
"You have your hard-core activists and then you have your occasional activists. They might attend a rally here or there and an occasional meeting at night and then go to their 9-to-5 job. They [the militia groups] were really hurt here. … they lost an extreme amount of credibility with this group," McKenzie said.
Roy said militia members may have decided "this is not for me" after the Oklahoma City bombing and just went home. Some grew tired of waiting for a militia revolution that has yet to happen. However, Roy said, many have joined radical hate groups, feeding its growth to 602 over the past few years.
Surviving militias, experts said, have taken a lower profile, not seeking any media attention and rarely granting interviews because they don't trust reporters. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, they have maintained a presence on the Web, with 155 Patriot group sites currently identified (a drop from 263 from last year).
Other militia members have opted not to be organized in large groups and prefer cells of three people — ironically, the type of structure McVeigh used when he recruited Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier for the Oklahoma City bombing.
"When you put together a cell of two or three people, you can keep activities to yourself and there's less of a chance that you be infiltrated," McKenzie said. "And nobody really knows you're out there because you're less formal and not letting people know what you're doing."
Pulpit in Death
The 4,000 pages of undisclosed FBI documents — and the refusal to postpone the execution a second time — breathed new life into speculation that McVeigh and Terry Nichols had help from other people in the Oklahoma City bombing.
Just before McVeigh's death was postponed before its original May 16 date, two bombing survivors, Jane Graham and V.Z. Lawton, sued to get McVeigh's execution postponed indefinitely because they were convinced evidence pertaining to co-conspirators had been either destroyed or suppressed. Killing McVeigh, they argued, would essentially be like destroying more evidence about a broader conspiracy even though the convicted Oklahoma City bomber claimed he and Nichols acted alone.
The suit was dismissed after a federal appeals court denied McVeigh's last-minute request for a stay of execution and McVeigh decided not to appeal to the Supreme Court.
When asked whether the FBI's voluntary release of the documents diffuses the government conspiracy theories behind the bombing, Trochmann offered two possible motives behind the timing of the disclosure.
"Maybe there are still some good agents in the FBI who are interested in uncovering the truth," he said. "Maybe, they got word of the lawsuits [filed by Graham and Lawton] and wanted to throw some people off the trail. Or maybe it's a combination of both. There are still some good agents but evil tends to float to the top."
Others are convinced McVeigh's death will only galvanize his supporters. In a recent report on executions, Amnesty International argued that McVeigh withdrew the rest of his appeals and demanded his execution to set himself up as a martyr. (McVeigh himself never explained why he withdrew the rest of his appeals.)
McVeigh's death, Amnesty International said, won't really silence his message because there are still people who share his beliefs, especially now.
"Such executions may also create martyrs whose memory becomes a rallying point," the Amnesty International report said. "For some men and women convinced of the legitimacy of their acts, the prospect of suffering the death penalty may even serve as an incentive. Far from stopping violence, the executions have been used as a justification for more violence."
At least one bombing victim acknowledges McVeigh's beliefs will continue to have a platform long after his death. But at the same time, she said the only way she could get a degree closure for herself and her children was through McVeigh's execution.
"He [McVeigh] will always have his forum, his pulpit … and I don't want my kids to experience any of that," said Kathleen Treanor, who lost her daughter and in-laws in the bombing. "People don't realize the hell we've gone through. To me, there's no end until there's an end."