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September 2, 2018

Did the Buffalo Bills cause the Oklahoma City bombing?

The quite silly question in the title of this post is prompted by this remarkable new Politico Magazine piece headlined "How Football Fed Timothy McVeigh’s Despair: The Oklahoma City bomber was once a promising young Gulf War veteran.  His slide into isolation and extremism happened to dovetail with the fate of his beloved Buffalo Bills."  For a host of reasons, I recommend the full Politico piece (which comes from a book by Sam Anderson), which provides context for this closing excerpt from the article:

Just four weeks after that disastrous Super Bowl loss [by the Bills in 1993], McVeigh found and latched onto the cause that would define the rest of his life. A group of citizens in Waco, Texas — a religious cult called the Branch Davidians — had refused to surrender its weapons to the federal government. A standoff ensued, and McVeigh became obsessed. He read and watched everything he could, then loaded his car with anti-government pamphlets and bumper stickers (“When guns are outlawed, I will become an outlaw”) and drove down to see the action firsthand.

He sold his paraphernalia to other militants and gave interviews to the news media in support of the persecuted.  When, some weeks later, the Waco situation went terribly wrong — the FBI set fire to the compound, killing almost everyone inside — McVeigh watched the news footage and wept.  That injustice became the core of his case against the United States government. Revenge became his life’s mission.

I am not saying that Timothy McVeigh bombed Oklahoma City in 1995 because the Buffalo Bills lost four Super Bowls in a row. (They made it back in 1994 and — incredibly — lost that one too, cementing their reputation as the greatest losers in NFL history.)  Such a claim would be absurd. Human motives are incalculably complex.  But that Buffalo heartbreak was one of the many shadows that fell across McVeigh’s life between his unstable childhood and his perpetration of mass murder in Oklahoma City.

The almost unbelievable failure of the Bills, and the civic pain it caused, amplified his native pain. After McVeigh returned from the Gulf War, his Bills fandom was one of the few positive social networks he was able to plug back into, one of the most powerful, stable, visceral communities to which he unquestionably belonged.  Its failure was devastating, to him and to everyone else in the area.  To this day, even well-adjusted Buffalonians walk around imagining alternate lives in which their team actually won four Super Bowls in a row, becoming arguably the greatest team in NFL history, putting the city on the map in a way it otherwise never could have dreamed of.

Or at least won one Super Bowl, securing a happy little foothold in history. Instead, that 1990s Bills team is remembered as a tragic joke.  It’s easy to pretend that sports doesn’t matter in real life, but for many millions of people, it does.  It matters profoundly, every day.  After Super Bowl XXVII, Timothy McVeigh went looking for somewhere else to be, something else to do — something bigger, more meaningful, more real. Reality had failed him, in so many ways, so he went off to pursue his own fantasy of justice, very far from Buffalo.

Criminal justice fans know that, among other echoes, the Oklahoma City bombing played a key role in federal habeas reforms that still matter profoundly every day to just about everyone serving long prison terms.  But beyond spotlighting one legal echo of the worst home-grown terror mass murder of modern history, I thought this article serves as an interesting and important reminder that the roots of evil and violent behavior are often quite varied and unpredictable.

September 2, 2018 at 11:41 AM | Permalink

Comments

https://xkcd.com/904/

This is not just true for sports narratives, but also true for lots of crime drama too.

Posted by: Daniel | Sep 2, 2018 3:20:25 PM

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