The pundits haven't been lining up to eulogize America's home-grown neo-Nazi mass murderer, so let me offer a few words of praise for Tim McVeigh. He was not as deranged as many people like to imagine, and certainly not flat-out insane. On the contrary, he went out in a burst of rhetorical brilliance. First, before the FBI screw-up and stay of execution, he referred to the babies and children who died in the Murrah building as "collateral damage." This was taken as evidence of inhuman heartlessness, although there are few such objections when the Pentagon tosses the same phrase around. What did we think "collateral damage" means in a place like Serbia or Iraq if not someone's adored child being dismembered by bombs?
He went on to explain, in measured and rational terms, that his attack on the Oklahoma City federal building was a response to an "increasingly militaristic and violent federal government," citing that government's inexplicable annihilation of the Branch Davidians at Waco. Again drawing the analogy to customary and acceptable military practice, he said that his own act was morally and strategically equivalent to the U.S. hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq, or other nations.
Analytically, McVeigh was exactly on target. Ours is an "increasingly militarisitic and violent" government, and not only at the federal level. In addition to the carnage at Waco, he might have mentioned the government bombing of MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia in 1986, the bizarre raid on the relatives of Elian Gonzales in Miami, and countless police shootings in New York, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, etc., or the fact that the United States now leads the world in the percentage of the citizenry incarcerated. As for the moral and strategic equivalence between the Oklahoma City bombing and recent publicly funded bombings in Serbia, Iraq, and other spots, McVeigh was, again, exactly right. Mass murder is mass murder, whether committed by a freelance killer or by the largest military bureaucracy in the world. Condemn the one and you risk your soul when you applaud the other.
So, while it might be comforting to dismiss McVeigh as a maniacal, one-of-a-kind deviant, he was, in fact, just a particularly apt student of the very government he hated. Recall his brief biography: Like so many other ill-educated, disadvantaged young people, he went straight from high school to the military, where he was painstakingly drilled in the art of killing efficiently and without remorse. Then, after a while, the military didn't need him anymore. He had been eager to become a Green Beret, but failed the psychological tests (interesting, isn't it, that there are psychological tests for the Green Berets?). A little tightly wound, perhaps, at least that's how some of his Gulf War comrades described him.
Bitterly disappointed, he returned to civilian life and a job as a security guard, earning about $6 an hour, or not nearly enough to live on. He drifted for a while, looking for answers, and eventually finding some on the neo-Nazi fringe, where government is seen as a plot by the Jews to advance the interests of the blacks and the gays. Waco revived his warrior instincts, establishing that the government has no compunction about killing its own citizens. It was the government that turned him into a warrior, and, of course, the government he eventually decided he was at war with.
He never stopped to think about the various decent and compassionate functions of government that remain even after Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush--Medicare, Social Security, a modicum of environmental and consumer protection, and so forth. If he had, he might have realized there'd be a day care center in the Murrah building and decided the collateral damage outweighed the perceived benefits of the hit. But perhaps we can forgive him for this oversight: Government had, after all, had very little to offer him. It had not proposed to help him get an education; it had no social programs to supplement his inadequate earnings. We might add that it had not enforced, for many years, the right of workers to organize. If unions were stronger, McVeigh might have been a member--as his father was--and earned a decent living even as a security guard. But our government did none of these things for McVeigh. It had no use for him, this government, except as a tool of war.
Overlooking the potentially useful functions of government--and the possibility of organizing to expand them--was the least of McVeigh's analytical mistakes. He should have noticed, if he paid any attention to the news, that the most common victims of government violence are people of color--or "mud people" in neo-Nazi slang. Cops don't go around shooting white guys, and the government doesn't favor African Americans with "special treatment" any more than Washington has been taken over by a "Zionist occupation government." If McVeigh had been looking for allies in his struggle against a violent government, he should have started in an urban ghetto. Too bad the neo-Nazis misdirected him. Too bad, also, that in white, rural America, it's a lot easier to find neo-Nazi ravings than the leftwing literature that might have given him a more accurate view of his plight.
But we are here to praise McVeigh, not to lecture him, and the best that can be said is that he was the kind of adversary a government deserves when it puts violence--domestic and international--above the responsibility of helping its citizens.
About a century ago, the Prussian leader Bismarck realized that if you're going to expend your young men as soldiers, you need to offer something in return--free public education, for example, and access to health care. In England and the United States as well as Germany, the welfare state expanded along with the warfare state, at least for a while. But for the last few decades, American leaders have forgotten that lesson and steadily shifted resources from social welfare to cops, penitentiaries, and the Pentagon.
Now, as we stand poised for Star Wars and further cuts in programs for the poor, we should reflect on the lesson of McVeigh: When a government has no use for its working class youth except as killers, killers is what it will get.
Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive and the author of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in Boom-Time America" (Metropolitan Books, 2001).