Movie Review: Oklahoma City (2017) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “O” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “O” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Once in a Lifetime  and The Opposition.

TitleOklahoma City
Release Date: 21 January 2017
Director: Barak Goodman
Production Company:  Ark Media Production for American Experience.
Summary/Review:

In April 1995, I was recovering from shoulder surgery and generally out of the loop of what was going on in the world when I heard murmurs of something terrible happening in Oklahoma City.  This was before the World Wide Web was widespread and we didn’t even have many TVs on my college campus so I always felt that when I finally caught up on the Oklahoma City bombing it was already an historical event, not something I lived through.  Watching this documentary 23 years later filled me in even more things I missed at the time.

The documentary centers the Oklahoma City bombing within the frame of a growing right-wing extremist movement that began in the 1980s – including white supremacists groups, 2nd Amendment absolutists, and Christianist sects.  The first segment of the film focuses on the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge and the second segment on the Branch Davidians at Waco, two incidents that convinced Timothy McVeigh that the government was set on attacking whites, Christians, and gun owners.  The third segment focuses on the planning the bombing and the devastation of the explosion.  McVeigh is the central figure of this part of the movie which follows the story of his disillusionment with the Army in the Gulf War and growing attraction to right-wing extremism through meeting people at gun shows.

I am very uncomfortable with the sympathetic portrayal of McVeigh in this film, particularly the repeated assertion that he opposed bullies, when any reasonable interpretation of McVeigh’s behavior would understand that he himself was a bully of the worst kind.  Fortunately, there are interviews with first responders and survivors of the blast – particularly parents of children in the Murrah Building’s daycare center who were killed and wounded – that relate the true horrors of that day and ongoing trauma.  Still, this is not the type of story where “balance” is appropriate, in my opinion.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

This is a well-researched and well-documented history of the Oklahoma City Bombing and the right-wing extremist movement that informed McVeigh’s decision to carry out the bombing.  As we’ve seen movements with similar ideologies form the Tea Party, elect Donald Trump to the Presidency, and march openly in the streets of Charlottesville, it’s a chilling reminder of the hate and violence engendered by these beliefs.

 

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

I have nothing specifically related to Oklahoma City to recommend, but The Bloody Shirt by Stephen Budiansky reveals an earlier era of white supremacist extremism leading to violence and terror after the Civil War.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The day Wall Street exploded by Beverly Gage


On a mid-September day an explosion rips through the financial district of Manhattan in the most devastating terrorist attack in American history up to that point.  The attack is attributed to people who come from outside the country and subscribe to an ideology that its critics say is anti-American.  This all sounds very familiar, but the story here takes place on September 16th, 1920 when an explosion at the corner of Wall Street and Broad Street rocked the House of Morgan and the New York Stock Exchange.  The day Wall Street exploded : a story of America in its first age of terror (2009) by Beverly Gage captures the events of that day as well as the events leading up to that day and its repercussions.

The explosion, graphically detailed in this work, was part of a series of violent acts with Anarchists, Socialists, & labor activists on one side and industrialists, police and private detectives on the other side.  Gage summarizes the history of radical violence dating to the Haymarket affair in 1886 and the subsequent execution of numerous radicals not actually proven to have anything to do with the bombings.  Subsequent events include the Homestead strike, the Ludlow Massacre, assassination attempts on Henry Frick, John D. Rockefeller and Jack Morgan, the successful murder of President McKinley by an anarchist, bombing of the Los Angeles Times office, and the Red Scare.  The cast of characters include proponent of violence Johann Most, anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, labor activist Bill Haywood and socialist Eugene Debs.  The story of Nicolo Sacco and Bartolemo Vanzetti also ties into the Wall Street Bombing with some theorists today believing they had a direct involvement.

The investigation of the bombing is presented as something of mystery with FBI agents, private detectives, and New York City police all attempting to be the first to solve the crime with none succeeding.  Many anarchists, socialists, and immigrants are rounded up with a good portion deported, but the bomber is never found.  Some wonder if there really was a bomb or if it was an accidental explosion of dynamite destined for a construction site.

This is is an excellent and informative history of an overlooked period in American history.  Gage writes that the ultimate demise of the radical movement in the 1920s as well as the House of Morgan/NYSE “business as usual” approach in the aftermath of the bombing have contributed to the absence of this era from many history books.

Author Gage, Beverly.
Title The day Wall Street exploded : a story of America in its first age of terror / Beverly Gage.
Publication Info. Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2009.
Description viii, 400 p., [16] p. of plates : ill. ; 24 cm.

Book Review: The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox by Stephen Budiansky


One of R.E.M.’s early albums is entitled Fables of the Reconstruction. That could easily be the title of The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox (2008) by Stephen Budiansky. The accepted history has it that the Reconstruction of the South following the Civil War failed due to a vindictive Republican government saddling the helpless South with corrupt politicians, swindling businessmen, and allowing incompetent blacks to take government positions. Author James Loewen even points out in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me how children’s textbooks use insults like “carpetbagger” and “scalawag” to describe people without any context of how these terms were used or mention of the many well-intentioned Northerners who came to the South during Reconstruction.

Budiansky pops the bubble of this revisionist history showing instead a South defeated in battle but continuing to fight to prevent enfranchisement and political viability of the freedmen among them. Budiansky pulls no punches and calls the organized violent tactics terrorism. Furthermore, it was a successful terrorism that basically forced the federal government to give up laying the groundwork for another century of segregation and inequality.

The Bloody Shirt relies heavily on primary documents that allow the reader to hear the voices of those who tried to reconstruct the South and those who often very openly admitted the crimes they’d commit to prevent it. Five men are central to the narrative:

  • Prince Rivers, a slave who escaped, fought for the Union, and became a South Carolina legislator. By the time Reconstruction ends he’s been removed from office by the Democratic government and forced to work as a coachman, the same work he did a slave.
  • Adelbert Ames, the military governor of Mississippi who fought a losing battle to rebuild the state under the new amendments to the Constitution.
  • Albert Morgan, a Northerner who moved to the South to become a farmer, married a black woman and found himself increasingly threatened by his white neighbors (albeit popular with his black neighbors) and ended up running for his life.
  • Lewis Merrill who fought bloody battles against the Ku Klux and white rifle groups in South Carolina that were as organized and calculated as the Confederate army during the War.
  • James Longstreet, one of Robert E. Lee’s ablest and most popular generals during the War. His public statements that the Confederacy’s loss means the South must support the Republican government lead not only to his ostracism but a false revision of his war record.

As well as I know the lowly depths that humans can sink, I couldn’t help but be shocked by this book. It was a sobering and instructive read. The issues raised in the book still reverberate to our time and I recommend it to anyone interested in the Civil War, racism, and American politics.

While reading this book I learned of Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon (interview) which could be a good follow-up book.

Memorable Passages

“To white conservative Southerners, the outrage was never the acts they committed, only the effrontery of having those acts held against them. … The bloody shirt perfectly captured the inversion of truth that would characterize the distorted memories of Reconstruction the nation would hold for generations after. The way it made a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim, turned the very act of Southern white violence into wounded Southern innocence, turned the very blood of their African American victims into an affront against Southern white decency; the way it suggested that the real story was not the atrocities white Southerners committed but only the attempt by their political enemies to make political hay out of those atrocities. The merest hint that a partisan motive lay behind the telling of these tales was enough to satisfy most white Southerners that the events never happened, or were exaggerated, or even that they had been conspiratorially engineered by the victims themselves to gain sympathy or political advantage.” – p. 5

Note: This behavior sounds eerily like a lot of the political discourse of the past decade or so.

[General Longstreet] He hoped that he might be forgiven the “bluntness of a soldier” to remind his fellow Southerners what had been decided at Appomattox. “The surrender of the Confederate armies in 1865,” he wrote, “involved: 1. The surrender of the claim to right of secession. 2. The surrender of the former political relations to the negro. 3. The surrender of the Southern Confederacy. There they should have been buried. The soldier prefers to have the sod that receives him when he falls covers his remains. The political questions of the war should have been buried upon the fields that marked their end.

One of the gravest errors, Longstreet went on, was the opinion that “we cannot do wrong, and that Northerners cannot do right.” There were good and bad in both sections. But one must now bend to the other. The war had decided which. – p. 153

Another United States senatorial committee convened to record the words of the victims after it was too late to help them. The Democrats now held the House; the mood of the country was now more one of fatigue with the travails of the South than anything like the righteous indignation of times past. The lingering Republican majority in the Senate had an air of resigned impotence, of going through the forms with no expectation of results. – p. 208.

New York : Viking, 2008.