“I had never spoken to a cold-blooded murderer before so Timothy McVeigh was something new.” He had murdered 168 people and injured more than 500 others and is facing death in less than a month. McVeigh had murdered these people coldly, without knowing them, or without any grudge against them personally. But, up close in the flesh, “his cheerfulness seemed genuine.” These are the words of Phil Bachrach, published in the May Esquire, headlined on the cover above a revealing girly photo of Charlize Theron.
Phil Bachrach covered the bombing, for which McVeigh was responsible, for the Oklahoma Gazette, a weekly that covered the bombing of the Alfred E. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He had been at the bomb scene a bare 20 minutes after the explosion, saw the victims, talked with paramedics. Like everyone else, he first saw McVeigh on television — composed, cool, dead behind the eyes, his thin face drained of emotion.
In his initial interview with McVeigh in the El Reno, Oklahoma, Federal Penitentiary, McVeigh seemed glib and at ease, disconcertingly normal. Several days after the interview appeared, Bachrach received a two-page letter from McVeigh, handwritten and torn from a yellow legal pad.
“I commend you for your excellent recall,” the letter read. Although McVeigh had excellent recall himself, he seemed fascinated to have things he remembered himself repeated by someone else. With all that McVeigh remembers, however, there is not a glint of contrition. What he did, he did. And that’s it. There is not only no crying over spilt milk, there seems to be no spilt milk. Dozens and dozens of people lie dead — many of them helpless little children, others still lie recovering in hospitals — but regret is a sentiment unknown to McVeigh. He tells his story without a glimmer of remorse.
In the just published “American Terrorist,” the joint authors Lou Michel and Dan Herbeek — who spent more than 75 hours in interviews with McVeigh — came to much the same impression of the man. Interestingly, in that first letter to Bachrach, McVeigh is more concerned with the behavior of the FBI at Waco during the siege of the Davidians than of his own violent act. “The public never saw the Davidians’ home videos of their cute babies, adorable children, loving mothers, or protective fathers,” he brooded. “Nor did they see pictures of the charred remains of children’s bodies. Therefore, they didn’t care when these families died a slow torturous death at the hands of the FBI. They didn’t care when boastful FBI agents posed for the cameras as people’s lives were consumed in flames.”
McVeigh admits, “In both the Gulf War [in which he served with distinction and for which he was decorated] and at Waco, as with Richard Jewell, you only hear one side of the story, and it is usually not truthful.” He thinks if anyone has trouble believing that the members of the Justice Department are adept liars — “come to one of my pre-trial hearings, or to the trial itself, or ask Richard Jewell. People need to question and analyze what they hear, and ponder the motivations of those spreading the propaganda. The truth lies deeper,” McVeigh concludes his first letter. “Thanks for your time.”
McVeigh continued to correspond with Bachrach. His next letter arrived a few weeks after the federal jury had sentenced him to death. By then, he was housed in Supermax, a modern-day Alcatraz at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in southern Colorado.
Squirreled away in a twelve-by-seven-foot cell, McVeigh would pore over news stories, some of which seemed to him to confirm his more dire views of our government (Bachrach allows he bears some responsibility for this, having sent him several news clippings he asked for.) In Oklahoma, the family of a dead federal inmate, Kenneth Trentadue, alleged that he had been killed by prison guards at Oklahoma City’s Federal Transfer Center. Several controversies blended together and all became part of the McVeigh doctrine.
“I’m spending this NFL Sunday catching up on my correspondence, and wanted to touch base. However, I must admit that I have this nagging concern that you’ll grab this letter and go running to the FBI. Cut me some slack, dude — this one is a personal letter from me to you (and next one — make ‘em fight for it, you brown-noser.)”
In it, McVeigh returns once again to the subject of the fate of the Davidians. “You see, Phil, ‘Waco’ does not stand alone in the eyes of the ‘patriot’ community. It’s the cumulative picture that is most revealing to those who dare look at it. If they’d but look, they’d see it ”
McVeigh eventually wrote Bachrach more than 20 letters which became more expansive as time went on. Alleged government conspiracies continued to hold his attention. But, by and large, McVeigh’s letters turned out to be scarcely political. He had other interests.
“Hey, Phil. Time for a purely ‘social’ letter — it’s been a while. Thing is, I get so tired of writing (wish I had access to a word processor) that I tend to abbreviate my points — and not get my ideas across.”
One of the things McVeigh wants to talk about is movies. It turns out that he is a great movie fan and is convinced that the greatest movie of all time is Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” One might think that McVeigh is a law and order man, but on his ten top list of favorite movies are “Forrest Gump” and “The Rock.” In “The Rock,” Marine Gen. Ed Harris threatens to blow San Francisco, and all its population, off the map to force the U.S. government to meet his demands until defeated by joint efforts of Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage. (McVeigh clarifies why this film rates as one of his best — “else I can imagine the comments! Technical accuracy was groundbreaking and set a new standard for realism, in my view, anyway.” Forrest Gump, on the other hand, is a veritable hero of law and order, highly critical of the anti-war radicals of the 1960s.
But McVeigh’s affection for “Unforgiven” is most mysterious, as in it Eastwood is a penitent, attempting to make up for all his evil deeds of the past by sticking to the straight and narrow. It is hard to see with whom McVeigh identifies in this movie as the Eastwood character is hardly a model, or only so in his repentant mode.
McVeigh is also a great admirer of “Star Wars,” it seems, and applies the film to his own actions in Oklahoma. “Think about the people as if they were storm troopers in ‘Star Wars.’ They may be individually innocent, but they are guilty because they work for the Evil Empire.”
Bachrach looks over his letters from McVeigh and wonders whether the man will be so blithe, so apparently carefree as death approaches. “And then I heard from someone that Timothy McVeigh was still writing letters. I heard he was still watching TV, still cracking jokes.” Then he concludes, “I heard that Timothy McVeigh seemed happy.”