I asked for a show of hands from my students. How many knew about the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on 19 April 1995? It was a large class in a public university in North Carolina composed of freshmen and sophomores. Only two of my students raised their hands, but even they knew few of the hard facts.
I described this specific act of domestic terrorism as I had experienced it. At exactly 9.02am I was at my desk in my office at home in Stillwater, Oklahoma working on a manuscript. Hearing two loud, distinct rumblings, I walked outside to catch sight of what I thought must be an errant jet. But there was no jet framed against the dark-blue spring sky, just a lone mockingbird singing in a large elm tree.
Later that morning while I was driving to Tulsa, the news on the car radio reported that there had been a gas explosion in downtown Oklahoma City, a blast just six blocks from where my father practised medicine for 50 years. Four people were said to be dead. Gradually, as I drove across the Oklahoma plains and past the fields of wheat and Angus cattle, I realised that the noise I’d heard earlier was the explosion in Oklahoma City. The blast was so powerful that I had clearly heard it 72 miles away.
My students did not really begin to understand the Oklahoma City bombing until I showed them news footage of the bloody aftermath. Only then, as images of the victims and courageous first responders filled the screen, did I see in the half-darkened classroom the shocked and outraged faces of 18- and 19-year-old students who had not even been born at the time of the bombing.
Several months after the attack I drove my father, then 89, along with my uncle, 85, to the site, now a compelling national memorial for the 168 killed, including 19 children. The two old men, both physicians and lifetime residents of Oklahoma City, stared long and hard at the mass of rubble in complete silence.
It seems memory fades fast, not only about the Oklahoma City bombing but also about domestic terrorists such as the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. The US continues to focus more on international terrorists, certainly in part because of the events of 9/11. True, most of my students had not even been born at the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, but I believe we allow them their ignorance at our mutual peril.
One way to inform the public is to bring discussion of domestic terrorism unabashedly into the classroom. As teachers we can reveal the history of domestic terrorism and directly address its impact by both stating the hard facts and continually pointing to contemporary cases. Placing domestic terrorism within a specific context serves to emphasise the obscenities of the specific acts. When I showed a video of the Oklahoma City bombing that included images of injured and dying children, my students reacted with disbelief followed by empathy and understanding. It was then that the words of the bomber Timothy McVeigh, who was sentenced to death and executed in 2001, became those of a perverse coward hiding behind the cloak of patriotism.
While explaining the impact of homegrown terrorists on American society is certainly no easy pedagogical task, it is one that I firmly believe must take place. Our students should not have the opportunity to forget.