Saturday, 28 February 2009

Book Review: The Third Terrorist - The Middle East Connection to the Oklahoma City Bombing, by Jayna Davis (2004)

Conspiracy theories often arise due to what can be called the "disproportionate impact" principle -- the ability of seemingly small forces to cause an impact much larger than their apparent strength.

Hence, we have trouble accepting that lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald can slay President John Kennedy, the popular leader of the free world; or that something as mundane as a car accident can take the life Princess Diana, the most glamorous woman in the world; or that a small group of unsophisticated cave-dwelling extremists can contrive to topple two high-rises in downtown Manhattan, and damage a large part of the nerve-centre of the world's largest military on the same day. Larger, darker, stronger forces must be at work for these plots to succeed. A well-hidden conspiracy.

Until the morning of September 11, 2001, the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was the largest terrorist attack on United States soil. A total of 168 people were killed when a rented Ryder truck, packed with 2,800 kilograms of explosives, detonated in front of the building. Two anti-government Americans, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, were convicted of the crime, with McVeigh executed by lethal injection and Nichols sentenced to a life behind bars.

McVeigh never tried to hide his role and motives, and admitted his desire for waging war against the government, in retaliation for what he perceived to be injustices committed by the government, including the siege in Waco, Texas (which ended in a bloody mess on April 19, 1993), and the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident in Idaho.

Can two unsophisticated home-grown extremists with a deep hatred for their own government bring down a federal building and kill 168 innocent people, including 19 children? This seemingly disproportionate impact, fuelled by the subsequent events of September 11 2001 and increased awareness of terrorist acts driven by Islamic fundamentalism, has sprouted conspiracy theories about a much larger plot behind McVeigh and Nichols.

In The Third Terrorist, local television journalist Jayna Davis tries to breathe life into a larger conspiracy behind the Murrah Federal Building bombing, primarily involving a group of Iraqis and Palestinians. This obviously became a personal quest for Davis, and she soon crosses the line from reporting on events to being involved in them. That Davis is out of her depth is painfully apparent. She comes close to breathlessly labeling anyone with a connection to any Middle Eastern country as a potential terrorist, and she repeatedly tags the Palestinian Liberation Organization as a terrorist group -- likely the limit of her understanding of the Middle East. Despite her naivete, she clearly believes in her cause, and goes to extraordinary lengths to try and piece together a credible conspiracy narrative.

Ultimately, she fails. For all the grand effort, Davis' work - and book - eventually falls apart into a jumbled series of individual incidents and unreliable and unsubstantiated witness reports that do not even come close to forming a cohesive plot. By the time this book was published in 2004, close to decade after the bombing, Davis had nowhere near the necessary perspective to be able to stand back and objectively assess and critique the evidence. As painful as it often is to admit, small forces can sometimes cause a disproportionate amount of very severe damage.

I have been to the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, and visited the National Memorial and the Museum which now occupy the site. I was quite struck by the context of the location of the tragedy; in the densest part of the downtown of the City. The Murrah building used to stand in an area characterized by short blocks, closely surrounded by other office buildings.

The outdoor Memorial is a truly moving experience, and the Museum provides an excellent context to the tragic events of April 19 1995. The attack, in what is literally the heartland of America, far away from the national centres of power, politics and the economy, caused a very deep local scar.

It is understandable that this creates a need to generate greater, more evil outside forces, beyond two American men who lost their respect for their federal government.

Unfortunately, the tragedy of conspiracy theories is that ultimately, they divert the energy of well-intentioned people like Jayna Davis from pursuing the real stories that could result in a better understanding of the true causes of evil -- and the actions needed to counter-act them.

Published in soft-cover by Nelson Current.

340 pages plus Notes and Index.

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