AMERICA'S homegrown terrorist: A 'soldier' in a twisted war


Sunday, May 6th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


He is a soldier in his own strange, twisted war.

He sees himself as a patriot, not for the Bronze Star he won in a faraway desert but for blowing up a federal government building in the heart of America.

He cries for those who died in the flames of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, not for the 168 people killed by the 7,000-pound bomb he unleashed in Oklahoma City.

Six years ago, Timothy McVeigh drove across Oklahoma's dusty flatlands and into the nation's nightmares, his mysterious rage packed tighter than the 55-gallon drums of ammonium nitrate he hauled in the back of his rented Ryder truck.

On May 16, the stone-faced man who became a symbol of homegrown terrorism will be executed in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. The 33-year-old Gulf War veteran faces death without apology. For him, the bombing was necessary to take down a bully - the U.S. government.

``My decision to take human life at the Murrah Building - I did not do it for personal gain. I ease my mind in that. ... I did it for the larger good,'' he told the authors of the recently published ``American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh & The Oklahoma City Bombing.''

And the 19 children buried in smoldering debris? He called them ``collateral damage'' - military argot for civilian deaths in a military strike.

It's a shocking description, but Richard Burr, a Houston lawyer who represented McVeigh for five years, offers an explanation: McVeigh saw the bombing as a military mission and sealed off his emotions.

``He doesn't in his mind see individual people with smiling faces he killed,'' Burr says. ``He can't let himself think about people killed. He still can't. It would be overwhelming. He could not tolerate it. He couldn't stand it emotionally.''

McVeigh's bombing of the federal building on April 19, 1995 - the worst terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil - was more than a tragedy. It touched a nerve in the nation's consciousness, heightening anxieties over terrorism that once seemed a far-off, foreign phenomenon.

America had encountered terrorists before - notably the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 - but this was different. This was not Islamic radicals.

This was the boy next door.

Timothy McVeigh was a scrawny kid from a broken home who loved comic books, ``Star Trek'' and fast cars and grew up to be a fan of ``The Simpsons'' and ``King of the Hill.'' A young man who longed for a serious romance. A soldier's soldier who dreamed of becoming a Green Beret and who, one former Army buddy says, had potential to be a general.

Burr notes that ``there are pieces of his life that are very sad to him,'' especially not having a lasting relationship with a woman. The tears that have come are not for his own disappointments, but for something that evolved into a bitter personal cause.

``He cries frequently when he thinks about the people in Waco,'' Burr explains. ``There occasionally are flickers of that depth of feeling about family members, about lost opportunities in life. ... He is not a monster.''

But his monstrous act still baffles some friends and neighbors, who wonder how a good kid and a proud soldier turned into a terrorist.

``It doesn't seem to be Tim, the stories they tell,'' says Monsignor Paul Belzer of Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Pendleton, N.Y., where McVeigh was confirmed and where his father still attends Mass. ``He would have had to change his personality drastically. That's possible. But I just don't think that he did.''

In interviews and letters, McVeigh has drawn his own map of the troubled road he followed to the Murrah building:

Disillusionment with the hunger and death that went hand in hand with America's success in the Gulf War. Anger over a new assault weapons ban. And two episodes that sent so-called ``patriot'' fringe groups into an uproar - the FBI standoff with white separatist Randy Weaver and his family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, that ended in the fiery deaths of some 80 people.

``In his view, this happened out of necessity,'' Burr says of the Oklahoma bombing. ``It was needed to prevent the future deaths of many, many people at the hands of the U.S. government. He believed that totally.''

It would be hard to see many warning signs from McVeigh's childhood.

Timothy James McVeigh grew up in Pendleton, a rural community about 20 miles north of Buffalo, a middle child surrounded by two sisters.

``He had a very gentle way with little kids and he always had a great love of animals,'' says Liz McDermott, a former next-door neighbor who remembers McVeigh's two cats, Tough Clyde and Shakespeare - in honor of the April 23 birthday he shared with the bard.

In high school, McVeigh was bright enough to win a modest scholarship, but his grades were unremarkable. In his yearbook, he listed his future plans: ``Take it as it comes, buy a Lamborghini, California girls.''

By the time he graduated, he had a growing interest in survivalism and guns.

A short stint at a junior college ended in frustration and McVeigh became a security guard for an armored car service, once showing up in bandoliers. In May 1988, a month after he turned 20, he enlisted in the Army.

In basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., he first met Terry Nichols, a failed farmer from Michigan who embarked on his own new life by joining the Army at the improbable age of 33. They quickly found a mutual love of guns and a shared resentment toward any government interference, particularly when it came to restrictions on bearing arms.

Despite that seeming contradiction, McVeigh became by all accounts a model soldier - tough, strong, dedicated.

``He was a standout individual,'' says Maj. Terry Guild, who served as McVeigh's platoon commander briefly after the Gulf War. ``When I knew him, you would have never questioned his loyalty or his integrity or his duty.''

McVeigh seemed to find himself in the Army. His uniform was always dry-cleaned and pressed. He was always the first to show up for work details and the one who worked hardest.

But there seemed to be two Tim McVeighs: The disciplined, super-efficient soldier who became a sergeant within 2 1/2 years, and the budding survivalist who believed some kind of doomsday was on the way and rented a storage locker to stockpile supplies.

He also began embracing the conspiracy teachings of extremist groups in which the federal government was the villain.

In the Gulf War, McVeigh excelled on the battlefield, but he was disturbed by what he encountered: Iraqis desperate to surrender, starving children, widespread destruction caused by American bombing.

``He had been struggling to find meaning in life before the Army and he found it there and lost it there. ... His passion about the government began to turn against the government,'' Burr says.

At the end of 1991, McVeigh returned to New York with a slew of commendations and medals, but could find work only as a security guard.

Two years later, the siege at Waco so fired his fury that he drove to the edge of the Branch Davidian compound, hawking anti-government bumper stickers. He was visiting the Michigan farm of Terry Nichols and his brother, James, when he watched the disastrous end on television.

He also became a regular at weekend gun shows where conspiracy theories ran wild about black helicopters, the New World Order and the government taking away guns from its citizens.

By the fall of 1994, he had hatched his bomb plot, choosing the Oklahoma City federal building because it was an easy target.

McVeigh planned the attack for April 19, 1995, the second anniversary of Waco. It also was the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775, which launched the American Revolution.

The final preparations came the day before when, according to McVeigh's account in ``American Terrorist,'' he and Terry Nichols mixed, then loaded thousands of pounds of explosives onto the truck.

Years later, when he acknowledged to the authors that he bombed the building, he indicated he never intended to kill children and that if he had known a day-care center was on the second floor, he ``probably would have shifted the target.''

But his explanation had a chilling footnote: He said the public horror over the children's death distracted from his political message.

Since his conviction in 1997, McVeigh has not softened his defiance or his scorn.

In a series of letters to a former Oklahoma reporter, some of which recently were published in Esquire magazine, he talked mostly about favorite movies and television shows. But in one, he said: ``I have nothing against the citizens of Oklahoma (except for the continuing `woe-is-me' crowd) ...''

McVeigh, who has rejected further appeals, is said to have chosen his final words from a 19th-century poem by William Ernest Henley that includes the famous lines: ``I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.''