(Ir)rational Terror

At the First Meeting of the Class of 2017, freshmen poured into the Berry Sports Center to hear speeches by the Dean, trustees, and the much-awaited and beloved Phil Hanlon. There was an air of cheer dimmed only by the suffocating temperature of the gym and the redundancy of advice-laden speeches. As my class filed out of the gym and toward Dartmouth Hall for the class photo, something caught my eye. The American flag that flies on the green was at half-mast. It was 9/11 – I had almost forgotten.

Acts of terror do not typically fall by the wayside in memory. The very word terrorism carries with it an implication of deep emotional impact, one that can develop into genuine interest in its executors, tinged by the chill of their reason for fame.

Take, for example, Timothy McVeigh. My fascination with McVeigh was borne when I first discovered what he chose for his last meal: two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream. The man, on the eve of his own execution for horrific acts of violence, was going out with sixty-four spoonfuls of my favorite flavor. It was a very humanizing piece of information. And it was haunting.

Timothy McVeigh was responsible for the Oklahoma City Bombings in 1995, which resulted in 167 deaths and 447 injuries. Before the event that immortalized him in infamy, he served as a member of the United States Army, and fought in the Iraqi Gulf War. He won a Bronze Star, given to soldiers for “heroic or meritorious achievement.” He attempted to join the U.S. Special Forces division, but was not accepted, and later received an honorable discharge. According to the Washington Post, a law enforcement source stated, “‘not making the Special Forces was something that was very hard for him to deal with…in his mind, much of his life has been one of thinking that he is in a kind of Special Forces of his own.’” Such a statement attributing McVeigh’s actions to a sense of paranoid responsibility, a vigilante mindset, was not uncommon.

However, McVeigh’s own writings revealed key motivations, or else justifications, for his mass murders. Though some were not released to the public until he was on death row, the vast majority of publications preferred using the reasoning of the courts and their own journalists to his own words. One of the less-frequently published artifacts of McVeigh’s life was a letter sent indirectly (through a third party) to The Observer, a UK publication. In it, he writes:

Bombing the Murrah federal building was morally and strategically equivalent to the US hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq, or other nations.

Based on observations of the policies of my own government, I viewed this action as an acceptable option.

From this perspective, what occurred in Oklahoma City was no different than what Americans rain on the heads of others all the time, and subsequently, my mindset was and is one of clinical detachment. (The bombing of the Murrah building was not personal, no more than when Air Force, Army, Navy or Marine personnel bomb or launch cruise missiles against government installations and their personnel). I hope that this clarification amply addresses all questions.

Another letter to the third party stated:

For those who dismiss such concerns as "paranoia" you need to look at the facts as they existed and further reflect that the Waco raid was not imaginary - it was a real event…

He goes on to explain that the attack was “retaliatory” and a “counter attack” to government violence aimed at citizens, namely the arms-based siege in Waco, Texas. This attack, then, was not for personal defense. Though the American’s dwindling right to defend himself was a key point of aggravation for McVeigh, the attack was a matter of principle. Almost all terrorism is.

What happens when we forget about acts of terror, and the messages they carry? What happens when these messages are silenced? Historically, terrorism has been a matter of religious retaliation. The Spanish Inquisition, Christian Crusades, violent interpretations of Jihadism: all instances of sacrificing life for a higher, religious purpose, one whose rewards cannot immediately be seen or believed. But a secular form of terrorism, one that follows clear, definite acts of violence with clear, definite retaliation, one that is not based on things that may or may not have occurred, not on a book, but rather on events that have witnesses: killing is never justifiable, but is this type…rational?

Perhaps the seeming logic of a terrorist’s reasoning is the very reason why we do not discuss it. We do not want to look for legitimacy in these messages because we fear we may understand them, may rationalize them, may even take them as justifiable. We ignore the message because we fear that, if we could be capable of such thought, we could be capable of such actions. We can understand his point, we can understand his ice cream preferences, we can understand what he did. We understand him as human. We relate. And that, more so than any death count or graphic images, imbues us with terror.

The most famous headline surrounding the attack featured a photo of McVeigh on the cover of Time magazine, with the words “The Face of Terror” to his left, just under an image of a fireman holding a limp-looking child. Another article, published in the New York Times on the date of his execution (a month after the above McVeigh quotes regarding his motives), served more as a justification of the capital punishment than an informative piece of journalism. It asserted:

All he could see were the crumbs of paranoid propaganda that he swept together for himself. That something -- the key to his reading of America -- was the gun. He always carried one. All other rights, to Mr. McVeigh, were secondary to that right. To him, it defined the behavior of the federal government and the obligations of private citizens. No other relationship, no other ethic mattered…The Army did not form Mr. McVeigh. The gulf war did not alienate him. He left the military only a little more completely who he was than when he joined it.

The simple sentences convince themselves of their own truths. Whatever evidence the author has of the army’s impact (or lack thereof) on McVeigh goes unexplained and woefully underexplored. It is denial. It is the public attempting to chalk up McVeigh’s actions to sheer insanity, to fantasy about heroism, citing his favorite movies and books as prime influences, without ever citing his own words.

The mainstream media’s neglect of his statements, of his equating of U.S. actions with his own, leaves the public in the dark with regards to his reasoning. No, our first reaction is not, “let’s see what the mass murderer has to say about it.” But maybe it should be. Clearly, someone going this far to express an opinion feels very strongly about it.

Then again, in listening to terrorists, are we legitimizing their actions, making terrorism a viable form of rhetoric? It’s possible this would encourage others to take up the gun and shoot their ideals out for the whole world to see. But if we ignore one message, maybe someone else will try to express it, committing a repeat offence of sorts.

In McVeigh’s eyes, his was an act of pacifism. As someone deeply impacted by his time overseas, he chose to demonstrate to the American public the double-edged sword of attacks on civilians. With the silencing of this message, the public does not have the opportunity to consider the idea put forth by McVeigh: that domestic terrorism, the diminishing of innocent American lives, is ethically equal to acts of war that occur overseas. The chief difference, McVeigh tries to show us, is the presence or absence of a uniform, of a national crest.

Ironically enough, by veiling his message, the mainstream media (or government, or whichever agencies aid in its repression) is only aiding the perpetuation of a war-hungry culture, of moral relativism warped by the lens of nationalistic pride. In silencing his message, these institutions are perpetuating inequality.

The U.S. answer to such terrorist acts as 9/11 is reflective of McVeigh’s very strategy. U.S. involvement in Afghanistan grew into a full-flung retaliatory war, complete with a manhunt of an al-Qaeda leader, attempted dismantle of Taliban theocracy, and overall mission to integrate domestic ideals abroad. Man hunt; dismantle of government; retaliation; principles of freedom: these are all key terms in the terrorist’s jargon box, given legitimacy here only because they are backed by The Home of The Brave.

Terms such as “counter-terrorism” and “the war on terrorism” still contain the weighty word. The government, in trying to combat foreign terrorism, has adopted its techniques and studied its mechanisms. Popular publications continue to neglect the meaning behind acts of violence, focusing instead on the further need for gun control, the further need to prevent these acts. And with the discussion in this past year of drones on U.S. soil, the cycle of retaliation, of terror on the domestic front, may be coming full circle. 12 years after the death of McVeigh, 12 years after 9/11, there are still plenty of reasons to be terrified.