Monday, April 19, 2010

Remembering Oklahoma City

It's really hard for me to believe — for several reasons — that it has been 15 years since the Oklahoma City bombing.

On the day it happened, I was living about 25 miles from Oklahoma City. At the time, I was on the journalism faculty at the University of Oklahoma. I was in my office shortly after 9 a.m. that day, conversing with a colleague. I've heard some people say that they could hear the explosion from 50 miles away. Maybe they did, but I cannot truthfully say that I heard the explosion. Of course, I was inside when it happened. Maybe those who say they heard it from 50 miles away were outside.

If, from that distance, being outside would make that much difference.

Anyway, I learned about the explosion the same way most people did — from a TV report. I was about to go upstairs to teach an editing class, and I walked past the student newspaper's newsroom. There was a TV in there, and a few students were already in the newsroom, even though their workdays didn't typically begin until the afternoon, and they were watching the initial reports.

I stopped to watch the report — and wound up being a few minutes late for my class. That was OK, though. Most of the students had been detained by news reports as well.

We were all a bit dazed by the news. One of my students observed that there was likely to be a great need for blood and asked if class could be dismissed so they could donate blood for the injured. I agreed.

(In case you're wondering, I never asked my students to confirm that they donated blood that day. Many no doubt did give blood. That is something I will always remember about the students with whom I worked at OU, especially the ones in my classes that semester — their generosity and unselfishness. Some may well have treated it as an unexpected day off from class but not many, and it really doesn't matter. I never made them account for their activities. I guess it would have come across as unseemly under the circumstances.)

Everyone was touched that day but especially people like my students, most of whom had grown up in Oklahoma City or in nearby towns. The bombing literally took place in their backyard.

Not all of the students actually knew someone who was killed or injured that day — but one of my students did lose her father. And ripples of loss continue to be felt. Yesterday, The Oklahoman ran an article of a young woman who was 4 when her mother was killed in the bombing. She says she has very few memories of her mother that are truly her own, that most of what she knows of her mother is what family and friends have told her. But, in one of the ironies of life, she is sort of following in her mother's footsteps. It may not be her permanent career choice, but she is working for the DEA — her mother's employer 15 years ago.

That young woman is the same age now as many of my students were that day. And many of my former students have children who are the same age today that young woman was 15 years ago. The cycle of life goes on.

As I remember, KOCO's Sky 5 was one of the first on the scene with aerial footage of the devastation. Within minutes, central Oklahoma (and, I assume, the rest of the nation) saw the destruction that had unexpectedly been visited upon it on what had seemed to be an ordinary spring morning.

I must admit, I thought of that six years later when the terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes and crashed three of them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It was the same kind of morning — my memory is that it was a clear–blue sky like the one on 9–11, and unseasonably mild with not the slightest hint that hell was about to make an appearance on earth.

The Oklahoma City bombing resembled 9–11 in more than just the weather. In the days after the event, there was an uncommon sense of courtesy among all the people in the area, much like what I observed in the days following 9–11.

And, unfortunately, there was an "atmosphere of hostility" in the land, as President Clinton wrote in his presidential memoir. Clinton rightly observed the role that right–wing radio played in fanning the flames, and there were reports of troublesome websites, but I always felt he gave too much credit to the influence of sites that encouraged civil disobedience and offered instructions in bomb making.

The internet did exist in 1995, and so, apparently, did such sites, but there were far fewer computers in private homes in those days, and web addresses tended to be much more complicated. A child can maneuver through the internet today with little or no trouble, but, in 1995, even adults with advanced college degrees had problems.

The internet has spread to more homes in 15 years, and it is unquestionably easier than ever for people to communicate online so I wouldn't casually dismiss the potential link between computers and evil acts when Clinton warns of parallels between those days and these. I'd listen to what he says.

As I say, I didn't hear the explosion, but I knew that area of Oklahoma City reasonably well. I can't say that I regularly spent much time there, but there had been times when I walked along the sidewalk in front of the Murrah Building. It is possible that I walked across the very spot where the Ryder truck was parked before it was detonated. I'm sure I must have looked across the area that is now a permanent memorial to those who were killed — but, whenever I was in that area, the building stood in that spot. I'm sure I wouldn't recognize it today.

I remained in central Oklahoma for another year after the bombing, but I don't think I ever returned to Oklahoma City. I never really had a reason to, I guess, but the truth is that I never felt the desire to return.

Perhaps if I had, I would have learned what The Oklahoman refers to in today's editorial — that April 19, 1995, was a minute in time. It was a painful moment, to be sure, a moment in which "lives were brutally stolen" and "[t]he lives of hundreds of others were forever changed." But it also was — and is — a defining moment.
"We are all 15 years older now, each of us moving, minute by minute, imperceptibly, toward the sunset of our own lives. Moments in time, both the marvelous and the horrible, will one day not matter.

"Until then, it is apt that we remember how a moment in time became the moment of eternity for 168 of our fellow citizens."

The Oklahoman

Someone — at The Oklahoman, perhaps — has calculated that nearly 8 million minutes have passed since that fateful moment in 1995. Oklahoma City is a better place today than it was 15 years ago, The Oklahoman says, but how much better would it be if those 168 people who died in that explosion had been allowed to live?

Certainly, if one asks that question, it is impossible not to wonder if any of the 19 children who died might have been the one to find a cure for cancer — or if one of them might have produced some other benefit for mankind. We mourned the loss of life many years ago. We grieve today for the potential that was lost.

Well, those are questions that can't be answered — and are probably best left not pondered. No amount of musing can produce satisfactory answers.

We may be unable to keep ourselves from wondering how different our nation and our world might have been if the Murrah building had not been blown up 15 years ago today — or if those four airplanes had not been hijacked in 2001 or if other acts of terrorism had not been committed — but, when the questions have been asked and the wondering is done, nothing is changed. Oklahoma City remains one of history's what–ifs.

It is fitting, as The Oklahoman writes, that we honor those who died.

But the responsibility for the future rests with the living.

For good or ill, the dead have made their contributions.

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