McVeigh heard the words but never got the message

Thinking Out Loud

Posted: Sunday, April 01, 2001

Timothy McVeigh was in our faces again last week, finally telling us what we had known for six years but which he defiantly had refused to admit in public: On April 19, 1995, he blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City for what generously might be described as political reasons.

We knew McVeigh held a grudge against this nation's government because of what had happened at an isolated homestead at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and at a religious compound outside Waco, Texas, in 1993.

He had talked and written to friends and family about his feelings. But after the terrible deed he went mute, compounding the cowardice of one whose bomb killed 168 people who had nothing to do with Ruby Ridge or Waco. I longed for McVeigh to assert some version of: "You damned right I did it. I did it because I hate the U.S. government. And I'm ready to die for what I believe in."

Instead, he pleaded innocent and did not testify during his 1997 trial in Denver. A jury convicted him nevertheless. Defense lawyer Stephen Jones tried to blackmail the jury during the sentencing phase by suggesting that a decision to impose the death penalty would end any chance of McVeigh ever explaining why he was willing to kill 168 people, including 19 children, in a strike against the federal government.

Jones hinted that only he and McVeigh knew the real story. "Two people share a terrible secret," Jones told jurors. "One (Jones) cannot tell you because of his oath of office and the other who can" could do so only if he was spared the death penalty. "Dead men do not tell tales."

As it turns out, McVeigh, who is scheduled to be executed on May 16, has been telling tales during 75 hours of interviews with two reporters from the Buffalo News. The end product of those interviews is a book due out this week in which I get what I thought I wished for from McVeigh.

He admits the bombing was in retaliation for Ruby Ridge and Waco.

What I've realized in the last few days is that I also had harbored a deeply hidden hope that McVeigh would express regret about the children, some conscience-revealing version of: "I did what I had to do but I'm really sorry about the kids."

Not quite.

McVeigh referred to the children as "collateral damage" and made it clear to the Buffalo reporters that the death of the children was a "public relations nightmare" that muddied his political message.

And he was explicit about the people of Oklahoma City, saying, "I have no sympathy for them."

In a story from the closing arguments during the punishment phase of the Denver trial, I came across a prosecutor's appeal to the jury:

"Look at Tim McVeigh. Look into the eyes of a coward. Tell him you have the courage. Tell him he is not a patriot. He is a traitor and he deserves to die."

Even though McVeigh heard those words in the courtroom and despite the fact they were affirmed by the jury, it's clear he never got the message.

Steve Reed can be reached at

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