"It was committed by young white Christians who felt great rage again the United States government. ... What would winning the hearts and minds of these people have involved? Mandatory Christian prayer in schools, perhaps?"
Timothy McVeigh, Christian terrorist? I certainly did not remember him that way. Where had any responsible journalist gotten the idea that McVeigh murdered 168 Americans in order to get prayer in schools? I spent the afternoon looking over years of press clippings probing the mind of McVeigh. In contemporaneous accounts, McVeigh was never described as killing out of religious motives. Nor was there any evidence that, at the time of the bombing, he even considered himself a Christian.
On the two great state occasions McVeigh had, at his sentencing and his execution, Jesus made no appearance in his rhetoric. At the sentencing, McVeigh quoted from Louis Brandeis' 1928 decision: "Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example." McVeigh's last public act before he was executed was to distribute copies of the 1875 poem "Invictus." It begins: "I thank whatever gods may be/ for my unconquerable soul," and ends "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul" -- sentiments that to a Christian are at least vaguely blasphemous.
In a letter to the Buffalo News and in conversations with author Dan Herbeck, McVeigh said he had no firm convictions about an afterlife: "And he told us that when he finds out if there's an afterlife, he will improvise, adapt and overcome, just like they taught him in the Army," Herbeck said. In May 2001, Esquire published 13 letters of McVeigh's. In them, he portrays himself variously as a patriot, a lover of "The Simpsons," a "Star Trek junkie," a fan of the movie "Unforgiven," a reader of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," an enthusiastic consumer of Hustler and Penthouse magazines. His only direct religious reference (other than a Christmas card) was a letter dated April 11, 1998: "Yesterday was Good Friday; tomorrow is Easter; and it's been so long since I've been to church (except Christian Identity) (kidding!)."
Reporting on his execution, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution described McVeigh as "an avowed agnostic" whose sudden last-minute decision to see a Catholic priest just before his execution surprised everyone who knew him. As recently as July 2001, even a lefty like Barbara Ehrenreich (writing in the Progressive) did not portray McVeigh as having religious motives. She called McVeigh a "homegrown neo-Nazi mass murderer," yes; Christian fundamentalist, no.
So when did the media begin to routinely portray McVeigh as a Christian terrorist? Right after 9-11. Here are two early examples: On Sept. 17, 2001, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist blurted: "The hijackers are no more typical Muslims than Timothy McVeigh is a typical Christian." On Oct. 4, a USA Today columnist picked up the refrain, describing Sept. 11 terrorists as having "more in common with Timothy McVeigh, whose twisted paramilitary take on Christian retribution led him to avenge the Davidians' death."
Timothy McVeigh, Christian terrorist. How has such a patent falsehood spread so quickly and easily through responsible media? Evidently the psychic need to equate Christian fundamentalists, millions of whom have lived peacefully in America since its founding, with radical Islamic terrorists who commit mass murder simply overwhelmed standards of journalism. Or, one might add, common decency.