An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


1995 – The Oklahoma City Bombing

1995 – The Oklahoma City Bombing

19 April 1995 – Oklahoma City

Terrorism has been omnipresent in Western politics in recent years, usually linked to Islamic organisations and individuals. But terrorism isn’t simply an Islamic thing, or even a middle-eastern thing. That seems most obvious in the case of the Oklahoma City Bombing.

On 19 April 1995, two white Christian men set off explosives in the centre of Oklahoma City. Both had been in the US Army. The main organiser, Timothy McVeigh, had been part of a militia group, angry at the handling of the 1993 Waco Seige. The explosions killed 168 and injured 680, causing an estimated $650 million of damage.1

Since 11 September 2001, the narrative around terrorism has focused predominantly on Islamic militarism. This has been inspired by (and in turn reinforced through) wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, strained relations with Iran over its nuclear programme, increased security in international air travel, extended powers of state surveillance and more. In some European countries, bans on certain types of Islamic dress – usually the full-face veil – have been justified on the grounds of security and the need for better “integration” on the part of Muslim immigrants.

It would be churlish to suggest that terrorism has not been committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. But it is equally myopic to think that this is solely an Islamic problem, or that Muslims are inherently more prone to this sort of thing than other groups. Indeed, that the general public discourse has shifted to equate the middle east with terrorism is one of the most important political shift of the past 20 years.2

The aftermath of the Wall Street Bombing in 1920. (Source)

The aftermath of the Wall Street Bombing in 1920. (Source)

Clearly, terrorism did not begin in 2001. September 11th wasn’t even the first terrorist attack in the financial district of New York. On 16 September 1920, a horse-drawn wagon entered Wall Street, packed with explosives. It detonated, killing around 38 people and injuring several more. It was believed to have been perpetrated by Italian anarchists in retaliation for the arrests of key figures, but the investigation never conclusively revealed who had set off the bomb or why.3

Moreover, the United States has not always been so abhorrent of terrorism in all its forms. For many years, Irish Americans provided funds for the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a terrorist organisation that committed a number of bombings on British targets.4

Not that the British could take the moral high-ground, of course. The armed forces in Ireland regularly used Protestant terrorist groups for intelligence, and were even implicated as being complicit in attacks on individuals.5

The point, of course, is to say that terrorism is not new. Nor has it always been universally condemned. By different populations and governments at different times it has been encouraged, or at least passively tolerated.

The way in which terrorism has been turned into a racial and religious issue will almost certainly come up again, probably in 7 weeks’ time (sorry… that should come with a spoiler alert, shouldn’t it…). But it is worth emphasising that terrorism is an emotive term whose connotations have shifted across time. In 1920, the FBI assumed the bombers must have been Bolsheviks. For they were the enemy. In the 1970s and 1980s in Britain, terrorism was synonymous with the Irish Troubles. And, indeed, what made Oklahoma so shocking was that it was purpotrated by “one of our own” – McVeigh, the white, Christian, Gulf War veteran.

Terrorism is going to be a recurring theme for the rest of this 30-for-30. As such, this is a good time to remind people it’s not all about Mohammed cartoons and Osama Bin Laden.

  1. ‘Oklahoma City bombing’, Wikipedia < > (accessed 24 May 2015).
  2. For how this process began in the United States, see: Stuart A. Wright, ‘Strategic Framing of Racial-Nationalism in North America and Europe: An Analysis of a Burgeoning Transnational Network’, Terorism and Political Violence 21(2) (2009), 189-210.
  3. Ella Morton, ‘The Wall Street Bombing: Low-tech terrorism in prohibition-era New York’, Slate (16 September 2014, 8.00am) < > (accessed 24 May 2015).
  4. Anne Applebaum, ‘The discreet charm of the terrorist cause’, Washington Post (3 August 2005) < > (accessed 24 May 2015).
  5. ‘Pat Finucane murder: “Shocking state collusion”, says PM’, BBC News (12 December 2012) < > (accessed 24 May 2015).
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