We cannot tell you what was inside the head of the bomber who killed three people and wounded at least 170 more at the Boston Marathon this week.
But we can tell you what was in the head of Timothy J. McVeigh, who 18 years ago this Friday bombed a federal office building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 children, and wounding more than 500 others.
McVeigh was proud of his bombing. He hated the United States government and considered it “the biggest bully in the world.”
He wanted people all over the world to know what he did and why he did it. He even wore a T-shirt celebrating terrorism on April 19, 1995, and carried a stack of anti-government documents in his getaway car.
The Boston Marathon bomber, or bombers, walked into a crowd of thousands of innocent people and planted two bombs designed to kill, maim and get the attention of a horrified nation.
We do know that the choice of target was a very public event a few days short of the anniversary of McVeigh’s horrific attack.
The 7,000-pound truck bomb McVeigh ignited was thousands of times more powerful than the two “pressure cooker” bombs used at the marathon. McVeigh lit a fuse, parked the truck and ran away from the vehicle. His actions that day forever changed America’s way of life. McVeigh, a decorated Persian Gulf War veteran from rural Niagara County, had turned against us.
Beyond the agony over the deaths of an 8-year-old boy and two other innocent people, beyond the powerful reminder of our collective vulnerability, the Boston Marathon bombing raises a lot of questions:
• Was the bomber an outsider who hated America, or a homegrown terrorist like McVeigh?
• What were his or her motivations?
• Did the bomber despise America’s way of life, its freedoms or its government policies, as McVeigh did?
• Did the bomber intentionally leave clues, as McVeigh did?
• Does the bomber plan to commit other acts of terror?
We don’t have those answers, but we can tell you what we learned from McVeigh during more than 70 hours of interviews and many phone calls and letters, during the research for our 2001 book, “American Terrorist.”
Even though millions of Americans despised him for it, McVeigh was convinced he was doing the right thing when he set off the bomb. In fact, he was disappointed that his bomb took down “only” half of the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building.
More importantly, how did McVeigh, or any bomber of innocent people, justify such an act?
When asked about the deaths of innocent people, including young children in the Murrah Building’s day care center, McVeigh called those deaths “collateral damage.”
“To these people in Oklahoma who have lost a loved one, I’m sorry, but it happens every day,” McVeigh responded, showing absolutely no compassion for his victims.
Is that what the Boston Marathon bomber thinks?
McVeigh chose a government building hoping to kill government employees. This bomber targeted an athletic event attended by average citizens on Patriots Day.
McVeigh hoped that the American people would someday consider him a hero for striking back at the U.S. government, an entity he blamed for unfair laws, particularly against gun owners, and for acts of aggression all over the world.
This week’s bomber has not yet provided a motive.
Although McVeigh was arrested just hours after the bombing, he took six years to publicly confess what he had done, in our book. But he did leave all kinds of helpful clues for investigators on the very day of the bombing. He wore a T-shirt that celebrated the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln with the message “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” words that Thomas Jefferson wrote shortly after the American Revolution.
In his getaway car, McVeigh left a treasure-trove for investigators – a large envelope packed with articles explaining why he despised the U.S. government, including its handling of the confrontation in Waco, Texas, with the Branch Davidian sect in which 82 members reportedly were killed, including 76 in a deadly fire April 19, 1993, that ended a 51-day standoff.
The documents also included a piece of paper with quotes from “The Turner Diaries,” the fictional account of Earl Turner, a domestic terrorist who blew up a government building in Washington, D.C.
“The real value of our attacks today lies in the psychological impact, not the immediate casualties,” Turner proclaims in the passage copied by McVeigh. “More important, though, is what we taught the politicians and the bureaucrats. They learned this afternoon that not one of them is beyond our reach.”
Investigators in Boston say they are making progress, but have not given any details.
McVeigh also had what could be called petty beefs with the government.
Soon after leaving the Army, the Bronze Star recipient received a notice from the Department of Defense for repayment of $1,058 that it said he had been overpaid:
“Go ahead, take everything I own; take my dignity,” McVeigh said in response. “Feel good as you grow fat and rich at my expense; sucking my tax dollars and property, tax dollars which justify your existence and pay your federal salary. Do you get it? By doing your evil job, you put me out of work.”
McVeigh later told us he knew that the Army had overpaid him but felt justified in receiving the money because of the sacrifices he had made during his service. He also was upset over the divorce of his parents. And in boyhood, he had come to hate bullies, once having his head pushed into a toilet at school by two older students who held him upside down for what McVeigh described as a “swirlie.”
That anger in time morphed into a massive hatred toward what he called the “federal juggernaut” and its law enforcement agents. The deadly August 1992 shootout at the Ruby Ridge, Idaho, cabin of Randy Weaver outraged him. He also visited Waco during the siege there.
He openly expressed his views a few miles from the Branch Davidian compound, selling bumper stickers that stated “WHEN GUNS ARE OUTLAWED, I WILL BECOME AN OUTLAW” and “FEAR THE GOVERNMENT THAT FEARS YOUR GUN.”
Was this week’s bomber trying to send some type of message about constitutional freedoms by selecting Boston, considered the birthplace of the American Revolution?
On June 11, 2001, McVeigh was executed by his enemy, the U.S. government. He never got his wish to go down in the history books as a hero.
He remains a terrorist, despised by millions.