In the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City Bombing 15 years ago, both media and law enforcement leaped to the conclusion that the attack must have come from Islamic terrorists. As a result, Oklahoma City’s Muslim population underwent a crisis. Why were they under suspicion? Had one of them done it? Reporter Scott Gurian looks at the ongoing impact of that misguided rush to judgment.
BOB GARFIELD: Fifteen years ago this Monday, Timothy McVeigh exploded a truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 people, including 19 children and was, until September 11th, 2001, the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil. McVeigh had ties to the militia movement and was retaliating for the government’s raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, exactly two years earlier. But before the FBI identified McVeigh and co-conspirator Terry Nichols as the prime suspects in the bombing, many terrorism experts and news reporters speculated that there might be a Middle East connection. The first World Trade Center bombing had occurred only three years before, and there was the Bosnian genocide, the ethnic cleansing of Muslims at the hands of militant Serbs and warlords. Views of the American Muslim community were shaped by that context. Reporter Scott Gurian looks back at the rush to judgment by the media and by law enforcement.
SCOTT GURIAN: In the 36 hours following the bombing, the Council on American-Islamic Relations documented hundreds of cases of what it calls “anti-Muslim backlash” across the country. There were reports of vandalism and death threats. Talk radio callers went off on racist rants, and a pregnant Iraqi refugee in Oklahoma City suffered a miscarriage after a group of people threw rocks through her windows and shouted anti-Islamic epithets. Imad Enchassi, the president of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, said his fear was sparked the moment he heard the blast.
IMAD ENCHASSI: I remember very vividly that I was going to the bank to make a deposit at 9:01, where I could hear a very loud explosion. My secretary at that time, she told me this sound like some kind of a thunder or something. I said, well, having lived in Lebanon, this sounds like an explosion.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Governor, describe for us, as you walked through the building, what did you see?
GOVERNOR: Well, it’s Beirut. I mean, it’s, it’s just incredible.
IMAD ENCHASSI: Sure enough, on the radio, the news was it was some kind of explosion downtown. I’m still not familiar with what it was. And not too far after that, when it was concluded that it was some kind of a car bomb, and so on and so forth, the news traveled very fast, and all of a sudden on the news they were looking for two Middle Eastern Arabs with a description that fits my profile. [LAUGHS] And we realized that it was – it was going to be troublesome.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: - three suspects, three men, two of whom are described as Middle Eastern. They're said to be driving a brown Chevrolet pickup with tinted windows.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A call has come in to the local newspaper and one of the local television stations by someone saying they represented an Islamic group claiming responsibility. But at this point, no official word –
MALE CORRESPONDENT: One of the descriptions is a 20- to 25-year-old male wearing a blue jogging suit, another 35- to 38-year-old wearing a blue jogging suit and brown pants, beard, moustache and brown hair.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: A news report from Oklahoma City also said a member of the Nation of Islam claimed responsibility, but that group also vehemently denies any connection with the attack.
SCOTT GURIAN: Part of the reason so much early suspicion was cast on Middle Easterners was the government’s detention of Oklahoma City resident Abraham Ahmad. Ahmad was a Palestinian American en route to visit his family in Amman, Jordan, on the morning of April 19th. He fit the FBI’s profile and the contents of his luggage raised some suspicions, so he was taken into custody at London’s Heathrow Airport, sent back to Washington and held for three days. He had no connection to the bombing, but was portrayed in the media as a guilty man.
IMAD ENCHASSI: And I was sitting at home watching it, and I believed it.
SCOTT GURIAN: Imad Enchassi.
IMAD ENCHASSI: Now, I believed my very best friend that I grew up with and I went to college with could have been one of the perpetrators. And then I go back to my senses and said, no, no, there’s no way he would do that. But then I'll go back and see some of the news reports, some of the expert reports and some of the media - Channel Four, Channel Five, Channel Nine - coming back saying they found bomb-making material in his luggage, and so on and so forth, so I believe it. There was a very strong message - even to me, who is Muslim and who knew that person very, very, very well - that I had believed that he could have done something like that. So imagine what kind of effect it would have on a regular person on the street.
SCOTT GURIAN: Ibrahim Hooper is spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
IBRAHIM HOOPER: After those first initial days, when it was thought that Middle Easterners or Muslims or whatever had done it, we saw that when it was clear that that was not the case, it was like a slap in the face for many people. And they recognized that, you know, this isn't the way you need to look at things, that you can have domestic terrorism that people who look like, quote, “regular Americans” can be terrorists.
SCOTT GURIAN: The FBI says the majority of terrorist incidents and attacks in the U.S. come from within. But, as Jim Naureckas, with the liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has observed, that runs counter to the media’s prevailing narrative or, as he calls it, metaphor.
JIM NAURECKAS: The main metaphors are the invasion metaphor and the infection metaphor. And in both cases you’re thinking of something that is coming from outside the body politic and is entering against your will. And if you could only keep that out, then you'd be safe. There is kind of a xenophobia lying beneath it, that terrorism is what you get when you are exposed to “the other.” And so, the solution to terrorism is to have a heightened awareness and a, a suspicion of the other.
SCOTT GURIAN: In part, it’s suspicion of the other that motivates the militia movement, which is on the rise. That’s why it’s important to remember not just September 11th, 2001 but also April 19th, 1995. For On the Media, I'm Scott Gurian.