Timothy McVeigh (far left) was the principal actor in the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He killed 168 and injured over 680. The almost twenty-seven year old was assisted by Terry Nichols, but it seems unlikely the bombing would have happened without McVeigh.
A native of western New York state, McVeigh had been awarded the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service in the First Gulf War. After discharge he held several part-time jobs and bought and sold on the gun-show circuit. He was often described as soft-spoken and affable.
A best selling biography of McVeigh — American Terrorist — was written with his cooperation. Just before McVeigh’s 2001 execution one of the biography’s co-authors answered the following question posed by a BBC correspondent:
NEWSHOST: A lot of people have asked me in conversations how does someone go from being a veteran in the US Army to becoming someone who can carry out the greatest act of terrorism on American soil?
DAN HERBECK: Part of it started when he was a boy and he was picked on by bullies in his school. Part of it was when his parents had a difficult divorce and he was very hurt by that and part of it was when he was taught to kill in the US Army. And then a big part of it was that he really fights for gun rights and he believes that everyone should have the right to own guns and when he felt the US Government was trying to take that away from him he snapped and he decided he was going to take action against our government.
The book offers a more complicated answer, but quite late in his book tour, the co-author is willing to deploy this reduction.
Anders Brevik (second from the left), was in his early thirties when he bombed government offices in Oslo. While McVeigh’s murder of children in a day care center was unintended “collateral damage,” Breivik quite purposefully gunned down over sixty young people on Utøya Island.
There is a new biography of the Norwegian terrorist, the English language title is One of Us. Reviewing the book for The Guardian, Ian Buruma wrote, “It is a ghastly story of family dysfunction, professional and sexual failure, grotesque narcissism and the temptation of apocalyptic delusions.” With modest adjustments the same diagnosis can be found in most biographies of McVeigh, including a long Washington Post profile published in 1995 titled, “An Ordinary Boy’s Extraordinary Rage.” Breivik was raised by a single parent, bullied in school, mildly maladroit. Like McVeigh. But while their back-stories are troublesome, nothing seems extraordinary. Each of them: just one of us.
A biography of the Tsarnaev brothers has been published to coincide with the survivor’s verdict and sentencing. The Brothers was featured on the front-page of last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, assessed by none other than Janet Napolitano.
The author, Marsha Gessen, mostly avoids the Freudian frames of the previous biographers. Yes, the brothers were born into an increasingly dysfunctional family. Certainly there was a share of professional failure, especially for the father and older brother. Yes, there was cultural and personal narcissism. But Gessen is reluctant to see any of these as explaining the apocalyptic delusions or violent rage that exploded on Boylston Street.
Last week the author of the Tsarnaev book was a guest on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. An excerpt from the transcript:
GROSS: The defense is saying that Dzhokhar (above, far right) was following his brother, Tamerlan (above, second from the right), but unlike his brother, Dzhokhar was not a self-radicalized terrorist. What does the expression self-radicalized mean?
GESSEN: Nobody knows. Nobody knows what self-radicalized means, and that’s one of the weird things about the way that we talk about terrorism. We talk about radicalization as though it were a thing, as though you could sort of track it and identify it, and that’s not the case. And then we’ve added this other layer, which is self-radicalization. Originally, radicalization was supposed to mean that there was an organization that sort of took you through the stages, and then when it turned out that some people just came to terrorism by themselves, this new thing called self-radicalization showed up. No one knows what it means.
Well, some claim to know. And I have seen some reasonable claims. But Gessen’s critique is a helpful rejoinder to quickly applying a convenient label that mostly obscures all that we do not know.
Whatever their origins and experience, the four boys seem to have arrived at a similar nexus where rather than accept what can not be known, they sought certainty in a baptism of blood.
Despite mixed reviews, I have ordered Gessen’s biography. It has not yet been delivered. So my imagination has full-rein. The title suggests to me The Brothers Karamasov, where Dostoyevsky has the father of the three brothers being warned:
Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others.Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself. A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn’t it? And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked on a word and made a mountain out of a pea — he knows all of that, and still he is the first to take offense, he likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility. (Book XI, translated by Volokhonsky)
What are the lies I use in self-construction? What offenses do I construe to give me pleasure?
Nothing out-of-the-ordinary, I assure myself.