McVeigh sentence finds support among militias Execution could make him a political martyr for a few extremists

He was obsessed with white supremacist literature. He railed against gun control. He believed federal agents had to pay for the deaths at Waco and Ruby Ridge.

Driven by those beliefs and a hatred of the government, Timothy J. McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City federal building -- a terrorist act that killed 168 people April 19, 1995. For that crime, a Denver jury condemned him to death.


Some fellow members of the loose-knit patriot movement around the country said that sentence was just. McVeigh, they said, did not help their cause.

To the broader public, his conviction and sentence did not extinguish the widely held belief that McVeigh was just one of several co-conspirators -- perhaps including the shadowy John Doe No. 2. In Oklahoma City, a grand jury will be impaneled to explore that theory.


While that investigation goes on, some experts who track the ultra-right say that McVeigh will become a political martyr to a small number of extremists.

"Some people may view this [McVeigh's conviction] as an end. It's not an end," said Robert Wood, a political science professor who teaches a course in terrorism at North Dakota State University. "There may be people, already inclined to violence, who may now do it in his name."

Timothy McVeigh's extremist political beliefs were the centerpiece of his lawyers' unsuccessful effort to spare him from a death sentence last week. His attorneys tried to convince jurors his ideology was, if not mainstream, widely embraced.

"Millions of Americans, millions share Mr. McVeigh's views," chief defense lawyer Stephen Jones told the jury.

The so-called patriot movement is a loosely organized element that believes federal power has spun out of control. Its adherents run the gamut from citizens who refuse to pay federal income taxes to anti-Communists, gun-control opponents and militias.

"They all agree on one thing," Wood said. "They don't like the federal government."

The movement, which has a long history, is fueled today by easy communication through the Internet.

Though McVeigh apparently was not a member of a militia, "McVeigh was part of the culture, the paramilitary culture," said James Wilson Gibson, sociology professor at California State University, Long Beach.


Militia reaction

Some militia leaders around the country yesterday said the gulf war veteran deserved to be executed.

"He was a soldier in a war against the government and in so being, he committed a war crime," said Norman E. Olson, commander of the Northern Michigan Regional Militia.

"McVeigh targeted noncombatants, women and children, while there were more lucrative targets for his anger," Olson said. "He is a war criminal and must be executed. Justice demands it."

Militia leaders yesterday disavowed any link with McVeigh or any other activist who takes violent action against civilians.

"McVeigh does not represent the militia movement," said Paul T. Phillips, of the Bay County Militia in Panama City, Fla.


"He should be executed without being allowed to be a martyr," Phillips said. "A lot of people placing their support behind McVeigh are these hate groups and that's not what we do. In my group, it's tough to find somebody who says he shouldn't die."

The Oklahoma City bombing may have drawn attention to the ultra-right, but it did not help its adherents' cause, says Daniel Levitas, of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, in Kansas City.

Resilient movement

"This has been, from the moment the dust settled in Oklahoma City, a public relations disaster for the militia movement," Levitas said. "However, the movement has been most resilient.

"What the bombing did was scare a lot of the hangers-on away," Levitas said. "But the hard core just got pushed closer together, and the temperature got hotter. The group is now smaller but more intense."

One militia leader, Mac Page of the Maine Militia, said that while McVeigh deserves punishment, he shouldn't be executed.


"I think he should be imprisoned because, just like James Earl Ray, this Oklahoma City bombing wasn't one person acting alone," Page said.

"The government wants McVeigh dead but I don't think the real truth is out yet," Page said. "I think we should spare McVeigh only to allow him to talk one day, see what he says down the road."

'A blood warrior'

In the courtroom, McVeigh, a model soldier in the gulf war, was always pleasant and courteous. When spectators and jurors wept over testimony about the carnage at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, he sat solemnly.

He showed no emotion when he was convicted. And when he was condemned to death Friday, he left the courtroom with a small, respectful wave to the jury.

The only explanation for his serenity, some courtroom observers said, is that McVeigh believes his attack on the Murrah building was a righteous, patriotic blow against tyrants. Now, in the eyes of some, he will be elevated to the status of political martyr.


"A blood warrior," is how Gibson speculates McVeigh sees himself.

But Gibson, who has studied paramilitary groups, says that the Oklahoma City bombing presents a dilemma to some on the ultra-right. Killing children and civilian adults is not the kind of attack considered honorable by many militia members.

"This was not glorious face-to-face combat against storm troopers," Gibson said.

"There is a pornography of violence within this culture," he added, "where acting tough and getting right up to the edge of violence is exciting. But the number of people willing to cross the line is very small."

The death sentence for McVeigh, however, "may inspire some people to go underground and at least plan a terrorist action."

"They see revolution as a long-term process," Wood said.


"They believe every war and every revolution has heroes," he said, "and every war and every revolution has casualties."

Pub Date: 6/15/97