Sunday, April 19, 2015

Rising From the Ashes of Oklahoma City

"The Oklahoma City bombing was simple technology, horribly used. The problem is not technology. The problem is the person or persons using it."

Rev. Billy Graham

It's hard for me to believe it has been 20 years since the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

I wrote about this back on the 15th anniversary, and I observed much the same thing then as I do now. It's hard to believe, probably even harder now. Maybe that's because it seems as if I have lived another lifetime since it happened.

There were many things going on in my life at that time — and other things that happened in the weeks and months that followed — that make my memory of the bombing something of a blur.

I was teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma, about 30 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, when the bombing occurred. In fact, I was scheduled to be in the classroom less than half an hour after the bombing happened. My office was just across the hall from the student newspaper newsroom, and I had been doing some work in my office for about an hour or so. There were never very many students in the newsroom in the mornings — it was a daily paper, and the staffers worked in there in the late afternoons and into the evenings — but there were a few students in there that morning, and they had the TV on. I could hear the news reports — still sketchy — as I walked down the hall just before the start of my class.

I knew something had happened, but, like most of the people watching the news reports on the local TV stations at that time, no one really knew what it was. In those days, people didn't automatically think of terrorism when something unpleasant happened. Well, maybe some people did — there was a report that day of a man of Middle Eastern descent who had the misfortune of boarding a plane in Oklahoma City that morning and flying to Chicago, where authorities stopped and detained him after he got off the plane. There was some modest hysteria about that, but it was nothing, I am sure, compared to what it might have been if the Oklahoma City bombing had occurred maybe a decade later than it did.

In those more innocent times (by comparison), terrorism was one of many potential culprits; in fact, the early speculation that day was that a gas line had exploded. As far as most Americans were concerned in 1995, terrorism was still something that happened in the other hemisphere. I could be wrong, but I don't think that man had any idea what had happened when the agents descended upon him in Chicago. Fast forward a few years. If the bombing had occurred in 2005 instead of 1995, terrorism probably would have been the first — and, perhaps, only — suspect for many.

My class lasted for an hour, then I returned to my office to do some work before going home for lunch. While I was at home, I watched the news reports. Considerably more was known by that time. The gas line explosion theory had been ruled out by noon. It was now believed to have been the outcome of a deliberate act.

That afternoon, I had a writing lab. Before it started, some of my students approached me about letting them leave early so they could donate blood for the injured. That was the kind of thing I wanted to encourage so I said I would try to wrap things up earlier than usual to allow them to do that — and that is what I did.

By mid–afternoon that day, a suspect was in custody. His name was Timothy McVeigh. He was convicted in 1997 and executed in 2001. His accomplice, Terry Nichols, is serving several life sentences in a super maximum security prison in Colorado.

For them, the Oklahoma City bombing is a closed chapter, I suppose — but not so for those who must live with the consequences of their acts.

The most obvious victims, I imagine, are the ones who were injured that day, and many have been the subjects of followup articles in newspapers and magazines. The survivors have not all been eager to share their stories. Some chose to avoid the spotlight on what must be a very personal anniversary for them; others reluctantly went ahead with the interviews but insisted that they would not let what happened 20 years ago define them.

I have to admire that.

But, as I have often said in these last 20 years, I also admire the commendable work that was done by the student journalists with whom I worked at the University of Oklahoma at that time. Many of them grew up in Oklahoma City or one of the many nearby towns; they were touched by the bombing, too, but they persevered with their work as journalists.

The student newspaper had its staffers at the bombing site for the rest of what remained of that semester. At a time when nearly every other newspaper — professional or academic — was using articles, photos and graphics supplied by the wire services, the OU student newspaper relied on its reporters, photographers and graphics artists to produce all original material — material that was posted online at a time when many professional periodicals still did not have an online presence, let alone most college newspapers.

They put aside their personal feelings and covered the event with the professionalism it deserved. That accomplishment was even more impressive than you may realize. One of the staffers actually lost her father in the bombing.

But she, like the city, has risen from the ashes. She has gone on to pursue a career in broadcast journalism and has refused to let what happened to her family 20 years ago define her.

At the site of the bombing, a memorial now stands.

I haven't been there, but I have heard it is a serene place with a reflecting pool, a "gate of time" and a field of chairs symbolizing each life that was lost that day. The chairs representing the adults are a little larger than the ones representing the children who died. That is a nice, subtle touch.

Another interesting touch is the "survivor tree." It was part of the building's original landscaping and, somehow, it survived the bombing and the fires that followed. It still stands. I presume it will be mentioned during today's memorial service.

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