1995 - A requiem for Oklahoma City
America's first brush with terrorism spawns a reporter's lament.
By Bob Lancaster
For our April 28, 1995, issue, editor Max Brantley sent Bob Lancaster on a trip to America's newest shrine, the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. On April 19, three days before Lancaster's journey to OKC, the building had been reduced to rubble by a terrorist's bomb.
Like all of us, he was rendered speechless at the sight of it. Like a good reporter, he eventually found something to say. An excerpt:
Just go look at the building, Max had told me.
Go look at the building and you'll know.
So I was there looking at it. Looking at it, looking at it, looking at it, looking at it.
Morning watch, and afternoon watch, and an evening when the floodlights' halogen glare turned the scene the color of aluminum foil, like looking upon a dreamsite, one of the garish towers of the Hell city of Dis.
And now was the third day after the bomb. Sometime in a dirt-gray afternoon. A cold wind blowing a cold rain in cold curtains over the ruin and over all of us standing looking at it.
Nineteen of us at the moment on this shabby streetcorner two blocks up and one block over from the building with its face blown away.
A shabby corner but with a good view of the already famous ruin.
You could see from here all the building except the very bottom of it, the street-level wreckage where the slickered rescuers waited also in the cold rain looking and looking and looking and looking, up into the great rearing honeycomb or catacomb or cross-section or cutaway. Waiting to be allowed back in.
Our corner wasn't so close that we couldn't see the building for the details, and yet it wasn't so far away that the perspective diminished the impact. Just the right distance so the building loomed - loomed both in the wide Oklahoma sky and in one's own mind. Loomed the same amount in both of them, and the right amount.
Standing looking at it looming there, 19 of us rapt as the apes before the monolith in "2001." Seeing in it the story of our past and the story of our future, and, through our 19 individual breaths humidified by the God's anger of the hurled-down chill rain, the story of our right now this minute.
What did it tell us about our country and our society and our time and ourselves?
The refuse, the aftermath had more to say about all that than we'd ever learn from the crew-cut boy who has that Lee Harvey Oswald look that promises to remain obdurately cryptic forever, telling us not one damned thing about one damned thing.
I knew that already, but I'd also already sensed that what the ruin had to tell was beyond the reach of any words I might bring to it.
The sight didn't render dumb the assembled color commentators, grief-counselors, and coiffed pols making the soundtruck rounds, but it did me, and apparently also these other streetcorner witnesses. Solemnity as we stood there looking.
When a youngster sallied up with a boom-box thumping under his big umbrella, the man beside me, after just the right amount of time had passed, said to him, "Shut that son-of-a-bitch off."
It was a way of saying, "Let's have a little respect here. There's dead people up there yet." A message equivalent to the one Moses got at the burning bush when he was told to put off his shoes. The youngster shut the son-of-a-bitch off, too.
This man was a bread-truck driver, come down on his day off to view the monumental thing. Told me his name but what would you care about that? Brought his boy, who brought binoculars. Twelve years old this boy was. Offered to let me look through the binoculars as long as I wanted, no charge.
So I looked through them for a while, gazing at the monolith, room to room, floor to floor, making mental notes, an inventory of identifiable items still in one piece, until two growing sensations obliged me to desist. One, I thought I might throw up. Two, I thought I might break down and start to cry.
Curious sensations, annoying actually, they came over and overcame and passed on like a little shock wave - an aftershock? - a lingering disturbance in the nature of things hereabout - and I couldn't explain either of them. Obviously. Hadn't seen though the binoculars anything particularly pukey or lugubrious. The rain-smeared inventory notes I'd made listed a file cabinet on an upper-story precipice, an unhinged but standing louvered door, a big wedge of beveled mirror, a computer terminal, a sink, a coat rack or hat tree - all just debris now, the only difference being that these items hadn't yet been smashed to bits by falling slab and tumbling pillar, as the others had, animate and not.
They would be soon enough.
Nothing in that to make one queasy or suddenly heartsick: at home, watching the same scene through the clearer, stronger eye of a TV camera, you'd have seen a more evocative or provocative assortment of the debris: a shattered toy, a shoe.
And another smaller shoe.
God's in the details, Frank Lloyd Wright said. The older aphorism had it the other way: the Devil's in the details. But that might be the same thing, after all. And maybe that was what these emotional surges were about: maybe the boy's binoculars showed more rainblown details in this bombing tableau than I recognized or realized, and maybe they meant meanings I couldn't fathom or guess. Symbols beyond my ken telling of an epic struggle.
Evil, the president kept saying of the bombing and the bombers. With the capital E. And maybe that's what this looming ruin had to tell: Evil visited here.
September 23, 2004
Source: Arkansas Times