Placing Terrorism in an Academic and Personal Context: A Case Study of the Oklahoma City Bombing

Stephen Sloan, University of Oklahoma

Objective. This article reviews the academic research context for terrorism studies before and after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, from the perspective of a long-time specialist in the study of terrorism. Method. The article combines a personal narrative and an analysis of the broader academic context. Results. This first-hand account details the ways in which research on terrorism emerged in the 1970s in Oklahoma and was shaped by the bombing and its aftermath. Recounting how early research on terrorism was conducted before the widespread use of computers as well as breakthroughs in training tactics provides an understanding of the ways in which the field has evolved.

The Oklahoma Context: Terrorism Studies Before 1995

While the United States experienced domestic acts of terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s, largely as a response to our involvement in Vietnam, the acts in most cases were not part of a sophisticated protracted campaign of terror, nor were they international in scope. Moreover, the country had been spared the acts of international terrorism that took place at that time—the skyjackings, as well as the bombings and hostage-taking, that were common in Europe and the Middle East. Even with the extensive coverage of the Munich Massacre of 1972—the first terrorists’ spectacular—that was covered globally on television, the threat of terrorism was a low priority at the national and local level. Therefore, an “it can’t happen here syndrome” pervaded American universities, where studies of terrorism were the result of the works of a few pioneers. Compared to today, research on terrorism was scarce and courses on the subject were rarer still.1 The University of Oklahoma was one exception to this trend. In 1976, my undergraduate class on international terrorism was arguably the first course taught in the United States within the rubric of “Problems in Comparative Government.” It would take three years before it was officially recognized as a regular course under the title of “International Terrorism” in the college catalogue. The highly motivated and talented students in this seminar became the nucleus of the Study Group on International Terrorism. In their coursework, the students engaged in a comparative analysis of acts of terrorism by drawing on various newspapers as well as other periodicals in a period when there were few research databases dedicated to the subject and computers were rare. The information was cataloged using a “Parameter of International Terrorism Form” that was filled in by the students, and then organized and collated on a card-sorting machine. The Daily Oklahoman published our findings in a seven-part series entitled “Can Terrorism Be Stopped?” syndicated by The New York Times News Service in
1976 (Sloan and Kearney, 1976). This coverage reflected the fact that public interest in terrorism was slowly growing. Academic progress was, however, halting since terrorism did not fit neatly in any one field of study; it was and is inherently interdisciplinary. However, an additional study that I co-authored underscored the fact that in spite of the “it can’t happen here syndrome” there was an early awareness of the threat in Oklahoma.With the work of the study group and the support of the Oklahoma National Guard and the Department of Public Safety our report, “Terrorism Preparedness on the State and Local Level,” not only identified potential targets but also assessed the state’s capability to respond to threats (Sloan and McEwen, 1978).

The study affirmed that the level of preparedness was low given the view that terrorism was not a major concern faced by the law enforcement community in Oklahoma. More importantly, the study found that individuals and organizations with vision were willing to address what was still viewed to be a distant threat, one that could have an impact on the state and local level. The work of our Study Group on International Terrorism changed direction when we sought to operationalize the research in order to provide realistic training for organizations and their staff to prepare for an emerging threat that was still under the radar of the law enforcement community and the public. Two factors influenced this change. The first was my strong desire to go beyond academia and apply our findings to help those who would be involved in the “real world” of countering terrorism. The second was far more personal and in many ways provided the foundation for the development of a unique counterterrorism training method. My wife, Roberta Raider Sloan, is a professor of theater studies who teaches and directs techniques of improvisational performance. As we discussed my desire to provide more realistic training for terrorism preparedness she suggested that if terrorism is theater, why not produce and direct acts of terrorism to assist law enforcement and the military in responding to incidents? The use of improvisational techniques stood in bold contrast to prevailing counterterrorism training methods of the time, however limited, which focused on a tightly scripted exercise where all the players knew their often rigid roles and the outcome had already been determined. In contrast, we would conduct simulations where the participants’ behavior would be determined by the behavior of all of the other “players” and the outcome would be the result of the interaction of all the participants using full-scale simulations.2 Our studies owe a debt to those Oklahomans and other visionaries who recognized the scope and magnitude of the threat. Our first simulation exercise involved the University of Oklahoma Police Department responding to a terrorist hostage-taking at the Norman pistol range. The responding force faced a challenge they were ill-equipped to handle. But we all learned from the experience and the university police, under the late Chief Bill Jones’s leadership, became one of the best university police departments in the nation. The second simulation was conducted at the University of Oklahoma Airfield, where the Norman police were confronted with a hostage-taking skyjacking scenario. The pictures of the simulation are instructive. The responding force only had pistols and lacked the armored vests and helmets that would later become common. Since that time, police forces have become armed to the point that there is now a debate over their excessive militarization. What is perhaps more important in these exercises was the fact that the simulation brought together officials who had the responsibility to counter the terrorist threat. They included officials from the French Ministry of Aviation, the pilots union (ALPA), the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the armed services, the intelligence community, and others. The participants viewed the simulation on a split-screen, thus enabling them to see both the command post and the location where the hostages were held. It was ironic that they were in the same (now former) Airman Flight School were one of the 9/11 terrorists received partial training.3 My hope had been to develop such exercises into a possible center for research and training on terrorism at the University of Oklahoma. If such a center had been established before 9/11 it might have become a preeminent place for studies and programs on terrorism. But the loss of this opportunity illustrated to a degree the overall lack of concern about the threat coupled with a failure to recognize terrorism as an emerging field of study at the time. Today, however, the University of Oklahoma is home to the Center for Intelligence and National Security.

There were, of course, several who did recognize the need to prepare for an emerging threat, most of them outside of academia.DeputyChief RobertDick, later chief of the Tulsa Police Department, tested the ability of his force’s newly established tactical and hostage negotiation team to effectively respond to a highly realistic simulation at the Sun Oil Refinery near downtown Tulsa. Drawing on the lessons learned in that exercise, a year later the tactical team conducted a successful anti-skyjacking exercise involving a commercial aircraft with 90 passengers. Over the years my own team conducted larger-scale exercises in the United States and overseas. These included a 24-hour simulation involving the U.S. Army Berlin Brigade against “terrorists” (later revealed to be members of the army’s premier Delta Force). But even with the continuing attacks and the first bombing of the World Trade Center, preparedness was slow in coming on both state and local levels. Public awareness of terrorism was still not considered to be a major security need in Oklahoma. In part, this was the result of the view that while terrorists might attack a target in a large urban center on either coast, the “heartlands” were immune to attack. All that would change on April 19, 1995, at 9:02 a.m.

The Oklahoma Context: Terrorism Studies Before 1995

Oklahomans are accustomed to natural disasters. Since the state is in “Tornado Alley” residents are keenly aware of the threat of severe weather and accept it as part of their existence. While there is nevertheless still shock and pain after each major storm that leaves a path of destruction, impacted communities adjust to what is a tragic act of nature. Moreover, authorities at all levels have learned through experience not only to respond to tornados, but to prepare residents for them through the development of an “early warning system” using the media of television, cell phone, PDA, and e-mail alerts, as well as radio, to alert residents to the dangers of an impending storm. In addition, local and state agencies have a keen knowledge of the origins and destructions caused by tornados through research
at various universities and the National Weather Center in Norman. Oklahoma. While such experience with natural disasters proved helpful for Oklahoma City area residents when responding to other disasters, both man-made and natural, the experience could not fully be translated and applied to the unique challenges caused by terrorism. Oklahomans had no experience responding to a terrorist bombing.

When the explosion took place at 9:02 a.m. it was not clear what had transpired. From my home, just 10 blocks from the site, the reasons for the powerful sound of the blast and the shaking of my home by the shockwaves were not known. When I went out of my house I could not yet see smoke from the impacted area. I initially believed that the blast was possibly the result of a gas leak from a deserted hospital a few blocks away. My neighbor, a pilot whose door had been blown open by the force of the shock, though it might have been a sonic boom, especially from one of the high-performance military jets that could have been stationed at Tinker Air Force Base in nearby Midwest City. My daughter Maya had been ill since the previous evening and I had set up an appointment to see our doctor, whose office was downtown. Since I did not know the cause or location of the explosion I started to drive to his office but as I neared downtown I saw a scale of destruction that overwhelmed my senses.4 I returned home, told my daughter to call my wife to let her know that we were alright, and then ran down in the direction of the bombsite to find out what had happened and if possible offer my assistance. I arrived at the YMCA catty-corner from the bomb site. It was only then that I knew that there had been a major explosion at the Murrah building. It was about 10 minutes later that I was approached by a reporter
from the CBS affiliate KWTV in Oklahoma City. I had appeared on a number of their news programs and they knew of my expertise in terrorism research. The reporter asked me if I thought Oklahoma City had experienced an act of terrorism. From my vantage point, I could not directly see the building, but the extent of the damage and the fact that the building was a major symbol of the government led me to believe that the city had indeed been subject to a terrorist attack. He then asked me who might be behind it. I recall wondering if the bombing might have been related to the tax deadline of April 15, which might indicate that a bombing had taken place as a form of anti-governmental, that is, domestic terrorism. But it was by no means clear whether the destruction of the building was a result of a natural disaster or an act of terrorism. There was, however, more clarity when the police told us to move away from the site of the building since another bomb had allegedly been found inside. The information was incorrect, but my perception that an act of terrorism had taken place had been reinforced.

While my initial judgments on the nature of the event proved to be correct, to the public it was by no means clear how and why the explosion took place. There was certainly great shock as well-meaning citizens and first responders arrived at the bombsite, but the cause of the destruction remained unclear. Furthermore, although people heard the explosion over 17 miles from its epicenter, they did not see the magnitude of the destruction until the local news helicopters televised the extent of the damage. My wife, who was at her office at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, 14 miles away, later told me she heard the explosion, knew there must be a serious crisis, but like others wondered what had happened. Like most of the population, it would take time before she knew that the unthinkable had occurred: Oklahoma had been subject to a terrorist attack, proving that terrorism could happen in a heartland community.

It is not clear when the public became aware that the official cause of the destruction was a bomb. The final report published by Oklahoma City characterized the immediate aftermath (TheCity of Oklahoma city, 1996:15; see alsoOklahomaBombing Investigation Committee, 2001)

  • Arriving investigators noted the odor of ammonium nitrate in the smoke. They surveyed the area and saw the crater and the type and extent of the damage. It was evident to them that the damage was the result of a bombing rather than a crash or natural gas explosion.

While the evidence of a bombing may have been clear to trained investigators, this confirmation was not immediately available to the public. Nonetheless, the rumor that the bombing was an act of terrorism took hold in the city. It would be impossible to trace the origins of the rumor, but the following factors were significant in changing the public perception of what transpired. In the first place, the extent of the damage was vividly televised from the helicopters of the major television stations. Viewed from above, the bombsite looked like other buildings that had been subject to terrorist attacks. When I first saw the building, the damage reminded me of the pictures of the bombing of the Marine Barracks on October 23, 1983, and of the American Embassy in Lebanon on April 18, 1983. Others may not have directly related the bombing to particular precedents, but the images of the Murrah building were so dramatic as to evoke the sense of destruction associated with bombings. Secondly, the images that a terrorist incident had occurred were reinforced by those speculating on what had transpired. Some claimed to have knowledge not only that it was a terrorist incident, but that it was perpetrated by a Middle Eastern group. One representative in Washington who had ties to the intelligence community, for example, said that he had information to this effect. In addition, experts of varying credibility would offer other opinions and analyses on who was responsible. As a result, the public was led to believe that foreign individuals had executed the bombing. This perception, in part, arose from the difficulty in believing that the act could have been executed by homegrown domestic terrorists.

During this period I appeared on the news desk of the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City, KWTV, Channel 9, on a regular basis, and the CBS national coverage often deferred to our local station. I urged the audience not to rush to judgment; that more information was needed. In the weeks following, I was touched when people from theMiddle East who lived in Oklahoma City came up to me and thanked me for not rushing to judgment. The view that there was a foreign connection may have been, in part, the result of the fear factor. The belief that there was a foreign connection amplified a bias that somehow it would only be individuals with different values and from a foreign culture who would engage in such an act of mass destruction. At the most basic level, it was a prejudice based on a fear of those who were different. Individuals who looked like they were of Middle Eastern origin were harassed, and at least one Islamic center near my neighborhood was vandalized. In addition, I saw cars that had anti-Arab slogans on rear windows and bumpers. Even after TimothyMcVeigh had been arrested about 60 miles from Oklahoma City by Charlie Hanger, a very alert Highway Patrol trooper, for driving without a license and having a concealed weapon, it would take time before his arrest would be related to the Oklahoma City bombing. The view that the perpetrators were probably of foreign origin remained until the public knew that McVeigh was implicated in the bombing. One must wonder if the harassment of people of Middle Eastern origin or appearance would have intensified had there not been relatively quick recognition that at least one of the perpetrators of the bombing was an American citizen. The apprehension of the other co-conspirators, Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier, soon would follow.

In a broader sense, Oklahomans’ lack of experience with terrorism may have intensified their fears. Unlike those in areas such as the Middle East where acts of terrorism are commonplace, the inhabitants of Oklahoma City were especially shocked by the carnage in their midst. They had not developed coping mechanisms. Oklahoma City was not Ulster, Beirut, or Jerusalem. The fear of what had happened was heightened by the fact that those who were involved in or witnessed the bombing could not place it in a meaningful and understandable context. Such fundamental questions as “Why did it happen here?”
underscored the fact that the public was initially reacting to the images of death and destruction they were witnessing on their television sets. In effect, they were victims of what has been called “The CNN-drome,” that is, images that are not accompanied by meaningful analysis.5 Such analysis would come in the days that followed, but during the early phases of the tragedy, powerful images and emotions often took precedence over substantive comments relating to the nature of terrorism and how it related to the Oklahoma experience.

From its inception, the coverage of the bombing was simultaneously local, national, and international in scope. A great deal has been written about the relationship between the mass media and terrorist events.6 Thus, the following observations will be limited to my experience dealing with the electronic and print mass media at the site and at the CBS affiliate station where I served as a guest anchor and commentator, particularly in the immediate days after the bombing. As one of the very few terrorist “authorities” on-site in the immediate aftermath, I was involved in over 200 interviews. From the very beginning I established several guidelines that I would follow: first, that I would explain what happened by placing the act in the context of understanding the nature of terrorism; second, that I would avoid rumors or general speculation not based on available information; and third, that I would not sensationalize the event. The latter was particularly difficult to do since I sought to provide objective analysis despite the fact that the bombing had, of course, also impacted my family and friends. Yet when I was away from the cameras and the lights I was subject to the same emotional roller coaster that others experienced. Some of my closest friends told me that I was a different person in the weeks following the bombing.

As a general observation, I found that most of the reporters behaved professionally; they were doing their best to get the story and they did not seek to provoke an emotional response from me. There were exceptions, and I basically responded by either stopping the interview or giving a boring interview so that the reporter would acquire the story from someone else. I was especially impressed by the sensitivity and questions that were given to me by local reporters and those from various national networks who had at some time in their career been on local stations. This included a number of CNN reporters such as Tony Clark andMike Boettcher, who had been recruited by the late Ted Turner. I also found that other reporters with national and especially international experience often raised the most insightful questions. Two reporters come to mind. The first was a BBC reporter who had covered terror incidents and campaigns in Northern Ireland and had experienced acts of terrorism. She knew the objectives of some of those who engaged in terrorism, most notably the Provisional Wing of the IRA and the Ulster Defense Association. The second reporter was a seasoned professional from the Voice of America. Like his British counterpart, he had directly experienced terrorism and asked insightful questions. We met a number of times and for the next five years, he occasionally called me to comment on how Oklahoma City was adjusting to the tragedy. As I gained experience interviewing, I learned to avoid falling into the trap of giving 30-second sound bites on what happened. I was often given the necessary time to provide a more detailed analysis. I should note that even with the early interviews I was concerned about the settings in which they took place. Early interviews often were conducted in the press area, where the interviewer stood in front of the lit-up ruins of the Murrah building while rescue operations, including the discovery of bodies, were taking place. It did not seem right to me. In retrospect, while the shock and pain of the bombing was readily understandable, one wonders if the community would have coped more effectively with the tragedy if they had understood that one of the major goals of terrorists is to engage in “fear generation.”

Beyond Physical Violence: The Second-Order Effects

The death of 168 victims and those injured physically are beyond the scope of this study. Detailed reports are readily available. The human cost in terms of people and property is of course vital for understanding how physical violence in the form of “armed propaganda” not only enables terrorists to seize the world’s headlines, but also impact on the broader population: the survivors, their families, the community, and a far broader audience. It is important to recognize that those people who were not physically near the impacted area often mentally felt that they were under attack. The expression “it could have been me” was common among those who lived or worked in downtown Oklahoma City. Moreover, it was not unusual to meet someone who on a regular basis went to the Murrah building to conduct business in its various offices. In a very meaningful way they understood that “there but for the grace of God go I.” Finally, while the target of the Murrah building was intentional, many people who otherwise did not know about the nature of terrorism were intimidated by the fact that the intentional act of violence was a random one for the victims who had been at the wrong place, at the wrong time. In effect there was recognition and accompanying fear that no one was safe from a terrorist attack and that no city or state was “zoned” against terrorism. The contention that terrorism had come to the heartland and that Oklahomans had lost their innocence was, in a sense, correct. But Oklahomans also lost their parochialism and insularity. After the attack the belief that terrorism happened “to other people in other places” no longer applied. Beyond the individual reaction, the impact on the community was profound. My thenteenage daughter,Maya Sloan, in a telephone interview with the BBC, modified the theory of six degrees of separation (which suggests that people are separated from each other by only six steps) when she said that in Oklahoma City “there were only two degrees of separation.”Her intuitive answer reflected a reality in regard to the close sense of community involvement and loss that resulted from the bombing.With the shared identity of grieving, however, also came the effects of posttraumatic social alienation (Smith et al., 1999:193):

Of the adults in the Oklahoma City MSA, 61.5 percent . . . reported experiencing at least one direct result of the bombing. In population terms, about 433 thousand adults . . . were exposed to one or more consequences of the bombing. Oklahomans reported higher rates (about double) of increased alcohol use, smoking more or starting smoking. They reported more stress (about double), psychological distress (about double), posttraumatic stress-disorder components, and intrusive thoughts (double) related to the bombing . . . Oklahomans also reported higher rates of seeking help for their stress or taking steps to reduce stress.7

7After the bombing I was invited to become an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

The Political Dimensions of the Murrah Bombing: From Grim Vision to Reality

Once it was discovered that the destruction of the Murrah building was the result of a deliberately placed truck bomb in front of the building, investigators hypothesized that the act was political in nature. Since the Murrah building was highly symbolic of the government and housed various government offices it was a logical target for a terrorist attack. The focus on the political nature of the attack, as noted earlier, was reinforced by the erroneous view that a group from the Middle East conducted it. In part, this may have been because of the nature of the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. As the information concerning the political beliefs of McVeigh and his co-conspirators became public, it was evident that they were right-wing extremists who had declared their own war against the U.S. government. Accounts of how McVeigh had been radicalized after his military service in the First GulfWar highlight evolving processes of radicalization globally that are increasingly influenced by the Internet and the social media.8 It is particularly striking to see how McVeigh became radicalized and later recruited Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier. He had created a community populated by domestic extremists. It is also interesting to note there was a defining moment when McVeigh decided to pursue his terrorist agenda and select a date when the attack would take place. This was motivated by the FBI’s ill-conceived and -executed assault on David Koresh and the Branch Davidian Settlement near Waco, Texas on April 19, 1993.9 In the months after the bombing I was to be involved in Timothy McVeigh’s trial. His attorney, Stephen Jones, knew of my specialization and asked me to be a consultant for the defense (see Jones and Israel, 2001). Specifically, he asked me to investigate whether there were any foreign links with the bombing. I had misgivings about defending an individual who had caused so much pain to the community. My misgivings were made even stronger when my daughter, who lost the father of a friend, could not accept that I would join the defense. I told her that I was confronted with the classic problem of reconciling defending unpopular individuals and causes with the need to protect due process and civil liberties even when dealing with the most heinous crimes. Initially she did not understand my position, but over the years she has become a strong adherent of the defense of civil liberties. While working with my assistant, SethMeisel, now a Texas-based attorney, we researched as much open-source material that we could collect and analyze to establish whether or not there was a foreign connection. I say, “open source,” for despite our requests and the fact that we had or could obtain clearances, and had a secure facility, the government denied our request for classified information. We particularly wanted to obtain documents regarding an official assessment of a domestic terrorist threat in the weeks leading up to the bombing. I do not believe that this additional information would have changed our conclusion that there was no foreign connection, but in the interest of openness and the best way to counter those who thought there might be a coverup, I wish that we had been granted access to available information from the law enforcement and intelligence community. Despite the complexity and expense incurred andmy reservations on capital punishment, I believe justice was served by the trial. As a footnote to my participation in the proceedings I was offered the opportunity to meet with Timothy McVeigh. I declined—what could I say to an individual responsible for the most lethal case of domestic terrorism prior to 9/11?

What Has or Has Not Been Learned Since the 1995 Bombing: The Key Role of Terrorism
Education and Research

The official reports on the Oklahoma City bombing contain excellent accounts of the attack and what transpired in the days and weeks that followed. The accounts are particularly useful in providing an understanding of the challenges created by the destruction for those who have the responsibility to be the first responders to an incident. Knowledge on how to deal with both the short- and long-term impacts of a bombing has of course greatly increased since the tragedy of 9/11. In addition, a wide variety of courses dealing with emergency management are readily available and there has been major growth in programs on counterterrorism at colleges and universities as well as those offered by the government. Compared to the past, research on terrorism has become a respectable, if not a distinct, discipline. While all these developments are positive, there is still a serious gap that should be filled in order to help the public not only understand the nature of terrorism but also how to cope with incidents after the initial shock of the event. We must continue to search for new ways to operationalize counterterrorism research in order to better educate not only police forces but also the public at large. Public education on the nature of terrorism should reach out to the community and even to school systems. There is a need for the development of curricula that can provide an understanding and awareness of terrorism in a nonthreatening manner particularly on the high-school and middle-school levels. In this way, if terrorism education is effective, terrorists will less effectively achieve their major goal of instilling fear in a wide audience.


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