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Was the Oklahoma City Bombing a

Terrorist Act?
Terrorism and Counterterrorism - Comparing Theory and Practice Week 2 Assignment

Eric Vought
Write an essay that answers the following questions:
What was the verdict of the judge: Were the terms terrorist and terrorism
used with regard to the perpetrator and the incident?
Do you think this incident should be labelled terrorism, when looking at the
Academic Consensus Definition of terrorism by Alex Schmid? Write down which
elements of the Academic Consensus Definition you think are most relevant and
which ones do not correspond to your chosen event at all.
The Oklahoma City Bombing occurred just after 9 AM on 19 April 1995
when Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck full of explosives outside the Murrah
P. Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (US). The explosion killed 168
people, including 19 children in a day-care center, and left additional hundreds
injured. Terry Nichols assisted with the bombing, and the Fortiers were implicated in the conspiracy.1 In the context of the recent Chattanooga, Tennessee
shooting by Muhammad Youseff Abdulazeez, Glenn Greenwald points out both
the difficulty and importance of discerning whether a particular act is terrorist
in nature particularly when the targets are arguably combatants.2
Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were each charged with 11 federal
crimes in relation to the bombing and found guilty by the jury:
Conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction to kill people and destroy
federal property;
Using a weapon of mass destruction that caused death and injury;
The malicious destruction of federal property by explosives; and
Eight counts of first-degree murder of federal law enforcement officers. 3
McVeigh was sentenced to death and Nichols to life imprisonment. None of
the charges explicitly mention terrorism, although in the opening statements of
the McVeigh trial, federal prosecutor Joseph Hartzler does refer to an act of
terror. In plain, simple language, it was an act of terror, violence, intend
intended to serve selfish political purpose. 4 Hartzler goes on to describe the
political motivations of McVeigh in exacting revenge on the US government for

the Waco and Ruby Ridge attacks. The motivations alleged by Hartzler match
the literature found on McVeigh at his arrest5 and with the letter he wrote to Fox
News journalists immediately prior to his execution6 . In that letter, McVeigh
claimed that his actions were justified by a war with the US government which
prompted him to select the federal building (housing, among other things, an
FBI office and the ATF.7
The fact that McVeigh chose to characterize his actions as an act of war
makes Alex Schmids early working definition of terrorism particularly appropriate, [i]f the core of war crimesdeliberate attacks on civilians, hostage taking
and the killing of prisonersis extended to peacetime, we could simply define
acts of terrorism as peacetime equivalents of war crimes. 8 Even if we
take McVeighs justification at face value and were to accept that the federal
law enforcement were combatants, the fact that he placed the bomb directly
under a daycare center9 would make the attack the equivalent of a war crime
and therefore qualify it as an act of terrorism by that definition. McVeigh also
admitted that he considered and discarded setting the bomb off at night when
few casualties would be expected because that would not have the propaganda
effect he intended10 11 . However, McVeigh contends that he did not know that
the daycare center was there, did not see it during his scouting mission, and
would have changed the target location had he known12 .
The Revised (2011) Academic Consensus Definition of Terrorism (ACDT)
states:
Terrorism refers on the one hand to a doctrine about the presumed
effectiveness of a special form or tactic of fear-generating, coercive
political violence and, on the other hand, to a conspiratorial practice of calculated, demonstrative, direct violent action without legal
or moral restraints, targeting mainly civilians and non-combatants,
performed for its propagandistic and psychological effects on various
audiences and conflict parties.13
Schmid also expounds and numbers individual elements of his definition. McVeigh,
with the help of Nichols (ACDT Element 3, Perpetrator), planned and executed
the premeditated (ACDT Element 9, Intent) violent attack (ACDT Element 5).
McVeigh argues that he was attacking federal law enforcement. Of the 168 victims, only 8 were law enforcement, leaving 160 civilians (19 children).14 This
meets targeting mainly civilians and non-combatants.
Schmid also emphasizes the indirect effects of terrorism: the true target of
the violence is not the direct victims, but the propaganda and psychological
effect on the audience (ACDT Element 7). As noted above, McVeigh rejected
night bombing to generate casualties for propaganda effect (ACDT Element 4).
He also included this quote from the Turner Diaries (in reference to a fictional
attack on a federal office building) in the propaganda packet he expected authorities to find (ACDT Element 6, threat-based communication, and Element
8, fear/dread):
The real value of our attacks today lies in the psychological
impact, not in the immediate casualties, Turner writes in his diary.

More important, though, is what we taught the politicians and the


bureaucrats. They learned this afternoon that not one of them is
beyond our reach. They can huddle behind barbed wire and tanks in
the city, and they can hide behind the concrete walls of their country
estates, but we can still find them and kill them. 15
McVeigh argued that he was not restrained by moral limitations because his
enemy (the US government) recognized no such restraints at Waco, Ruby Ridge
and in Iraq.16 By characterizing his actions as a war, he acknowledged a wider
doctrine (ACDT Element 1) of unrestrained violence to right the wrongs he
perceived (ACDT Element 2). ACDT Element 10 (Campaign) does not fit in
the sense that only one attack was executed, but it seems reasonable to conclude
from his letter and characterization of a war against the government, that he
would have conducted additional attacks if not captured and that he expected
his attack to be a model for others to copy.
The bombing therefore fits the ACDT elements quite well but for the fortuitous fact that the bomber was apprehended and others did not take up the
cause. Even with the question of the legitimacy of federal law enforcement as
combatants, the act fits the overall definition of terrorism equally well.

Notes
1 Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Oklahoma City Bombing 20 Years Later. https:
//stories.fbi.gov/oklahoma-bombing/ (2015-07-07)
2 Glenn Greenwald. The Chattanooga Shootings: Can Attacking Military Sites of a
Nation at War be Terrorism ? The Intercept. 17 July 2015. https://firstlook.org/
theintercept/2015/07/17/can-attacking-military-sites-nation-war-terrorism/
3 Ibid.
4 Joseph Hartzler. Opening statements of prosecutor Joseph Hartzler, April 24, 1997.
McVeigh Trial Homepage. University of Missouri at Kansas City. http://law2.umkc.edu/
faculty/projects/ftrials/mcveigh/prosecutionopen.html (2015-07-07)
5 Lou Michel and Dan Harbeck. American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma
City Bombing. (United States: ReganBooks, 2001) 226-229.
6 Rita Cosby. McVeighs Apr. 26 Letter to Fox News. Fox News. Thursday, April 26,
2001. http://www.webcitation.org/5wow5v4MK
7 Ibid.
8 United States Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism 2003 (Washington, DC:
Office of the Secretary of State, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, April 2004),
p. xii. Quoted in Joshua Sanai. How to Define Terrorism. Perspectives on Terrorism, vol.
II, no. 4 (2008)
9 FBI. The Oklahoma City Bombing 20 Years Later.
10 Cosby. McVeighs Apr. 26 Letter to Fox News.
11 Michel and Harbeck. American Terrorist. 225
12 Ibid. 188.
13 Alex P. Schmid. "The Definition of Terrorism" in The Routledge Handbook of Terrorism
Research edited by Alex Schmid, 39-157 (New York: Routledge, 2011) at 86.
14 FBI. The Oklahoma City Bombing 20 Years Later.
15 Michel & Harbeck. American Terrorist. 228
16 Cosby. McVeighs Apr. 26 Letter to Fox News.