One sunny weekday afternoon several years ago, Marsha Kight was invited to be a guest speaker at my college, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in Midtown Manhattan.
Gathered in attendance inside a classroom reserved for this special occasion were myself and two dozen or so anthropology, sociology and criminal justice students and professors.
Ms. Kight, an internationally recognized victim rights advocate, was there to give a talk on the Oklahoma City bombing
and the growing threat to the nation posed by the militia movement and other militant right-wing extremists.
On April 19, 1995, at approximately 9:02 a.m., Timothy McVeigh
detonated a massive truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building
in downtown Oklahoma City. Co-conspirator Terry Nichols
had assisted McVeigh with the planning, logistics and construction of this instrument of destruction.
Both McVeigh and Nichols were anti-government extremists with ties to the militia movement. Both were seething with rage and hatred towards the federal government over the controversial end to the 1993 Branch Davidian compound siege
in Waco, Texas. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)-led siege commenced almost immediately after the Branch Davidians successfully fought off
a raid by over 118 members of an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) Special Response Team.
The Branch Davidians
were a kooky but extremely heavily armed apocalyptic cult group. Though the obscure beliefs of their messianic leader, David Koresh, largely separated them from the overall militant far-right movement, the cult group received a great deal of moral support and sympathy from militia groups nationally who had also accumulated massive (and often illegal) stockpiles of military-grade weaponry and explosives. When the federal government made the move to shutdown the Branch Davidians because of it's illegal weapons cache, militia groups throughout the nation were enraged and concerned that they could be the next target of a raid by the ATF or FBI. McVeigh and Nichols were as outraged as any in the militia movement.
The truck bomb attack on the federal office building in downtown Oklahoma City totally decimated that structure while the echo of the blast and it's shockwaves could be felt from a great distance and shattered windows as far as three miles away from the detonation site. The blast itself and the ensuing column of smoke that it sent skyward could be seen as far as five miles away.
The emergency services of both the city and state of Oklahoma were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of dead and wounded, some of whom were trapped in the ruins of the building.
Firefighters, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians, emergency responders and even the military came in droves from all over the country to respond to the call for help from their fellow American's in the nation's heartland. The federal government also responded in force to the disaster. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue (USAR)
teams comprised of emergency responders and rescue specialists were dispatched from Fairfax, Miami, Los Angeles, and New York City on that dark day.
And who could forget those awful images of horror and heartbreak
that were displayed in real-time on television screens globally.
When the smoke and dust finally cleared, 168 people were killed while another 500 were wounded or maimed. Among the dead was Frankie Merrell, 23, an office worker at the federal building and Ms. Kight's daughter.
For the next 45 minutes or so we all listened with rapt attention as Ms. Kight spoke of the impact this act of terrorism had on her life.
Ms. Kight's tale was a harrowing portrait of a terrorism victim's suffering. A mother's pain for the untimely loss of her daughter.
Ms. Kight was very close to Frankie and the two shared a special bond. In the months following the death of her daughter she became lost and her life took a very dark and painful turn.
She became an alcoholic and began to let herself go. She also went through a severe bout of depression and even became suicidal.
Her life was in a tailspin but no one could get through to her.
As she told her profoundly painful tale, there was sobbing from those in attendance while tears streamed down the cheeks of others.
I was shocked to feel a sensation of something warm and wet streaming downing my face and was even more shocked to discover that they were tears, my tears.
While I was deeply saddened by her account, I didn't actually feel that I was upset to the point of tears. Her story broke my heart but I don't blame her for that, rather all fault is with McVeigh, Nichols and others like them.
After drinking very heavily while alone at home one evening, Ms. Kight suddenly blacked-out. When she came to, she was covered in blood. The blood was that of her own and she suspected that she may have wounded herself when she blacked-out (perhaps hitting her head on a hard surface.)
It was at that moment Ms. Knight said she made a faithful decision. She told herself that she was either going to live or die right there and now but continuing to live in her current tormented state was no longer an option.
Thankfully, Ms. Kight chose life.
She has since found a new direction and purpose and has dedicated her life to advocating for victim's rights.
Happy endings are a wonderful thing, aren't they? They are so rare but there should be more of them. She is definitely in a better place now.
Ms. Kight has also helped publish a book. The book is titled Forever Changed
and is a compilation of stories by survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing as well as those who lost loved ones in the attack. Ms. Kight's own story is chronicled in the book as well.
Ms. Kight also briefly spoke about the threat posed to society by the nation's anti-government militia movement.
Her story and those of others, give a human face to the suffering of victims and survivors of terrorism rather than just the standard news images of hysterical and dazed people against the backdrop of a building in ruins and burning cars in the street.
After Ms. Kight was finished with her talk she stayed to field questions from her audience. I had the privilege of briefly speaking with her one-on-one about the bombing and the right-wing terrorism threat against America.
Ms. Kight is a very bold, courageous and beautiful person. She clearly has the heart and soul of a fighter but is also very friendly, patient and kind in her interactions with others.
I was very impressed with Ms. Kight and deeply in awe of how she emerged from a personal Hell and into a place of light.
It would have been enough if she had used the emotional strength within her to save herself, but she has gone well above that and now helps others who are survivors of violence themselves. Inspiring.
I admire that so deeply.
There is no way that she could have known it at the time, but Ms. Kight's talk had a very deep and profound impact on my life. The lecture that she gave on that afternoon would stay with me forever and would become a key and compelling reason in my decision to choose a life path that would have me passionately stand against the beast known to us all as terrorism. a decision that now seems much more like a personal life calling.
Oklahoma City has also moved on. Today, the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum
now stand where the Alfred P. Murrah office building once existed. The memorial and museum are national monuments.
Today, as we remember the 17th anniversary of this attack and the lives that were lost, there is a disturbing resurgence in the militia movement.
Though the Oklahoma City bombing was or a decade ago, a surge in violent activity in recent years proves that he domestic terrorist threat posed by right-wing extremists is still very much potent and a force to be reckoned with.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)
highlights this troubling and dangerous trend in the Spring 2012 edition of it's Intelligence Report.
The militia movement (also referred to as the "Patriot" movement) is made up of heavily-armed, conspiracy-minded persons that see the federal government as their primary enemy. Some militia groups also have close ties to other right-wing extremist entities including white supremacists and neo-nazi groups, training them in paramilitary tactics.
In a recent interview with NPR
, Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Montgomery, Alabama based SPLC was quoted as saying of the militia movement,
It's a conspiracy-driven movement.
According to the SPLC report, last year's staggering militia group count of 1,274 eclipsed the previous 858 groups in 1996: the year following the Oklahoma City bombing.
The SPLC is a national leader on right-wing militancy and domestic terrorism.
The threat from militant right-wing extremists is once again rising to crisis levels with experts fearful of the possibility that this rise could eventually lead to a massive act of terrorism.
When most Americans think about terrorists targeting U.S. soil, they usually envision the threat as coming from abroad in the form of radical, wild-eyed Arab Muslim extremists from the Middle East. They don't tend to think of their fellow citizens as being capable of the type of hate and violence that is so often synonymous with foreign-based Islamic extremists.
This is not just a very short-sighted view of terrorism, it's also a very dangerous view.
In it's zeal to confront all aspects of international Islamic-based terrorism, the American government and it's people must not make the deadly mistake of ignoring or short-changing the militant right-wing domestic terrorism threat. Both pose a sincere and enduring threat to U.S. national security.
America must focus on both threats at once. Favoring or focusing too much on only one of these threats runs the risk of being blindsided by the other.
The tragedy of the Oklahoma City bombing should not repeat itself in our lifetime. God forbid that this atrocity should actually ever happen again, it should not be because of ignorance of the threat within our borders. As a nation we must remain aware and on alert of this threat.
Please take time out of your day to dedicate 168 seconds of silence for those who were lost in the terrorist atrocity on this tragic day. Remember.