Jeffrey Toobin

On the 19th of April 1999 Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. 168 people died. On January 6, 2021, following the defeat of U.S. President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, a mob of his supporters attacked the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. 5 people died. In this book, Jeffrey Toobin, lawyer and longtime legal analyst for CNN, states that although these events took place more than 20 years apart, the political reaction is different. The thoughts and ideals that motivated McVeigh 20 years ago, are now widely embraced by a former president, and possible again by a future president.

Toobin’s writing is characterized by its factual approach, providing a comprehensive account of the subject matter. However, it does not focus on the full breadth of eyewitness testimonies concerning the bombing and the lasting effects on survivors and their families. Despite the limited instances, the narratives that do emerge are deeply poignant and unforgettable. One such instance is the harrowing story of a courageous doctor who made the difficult decision to amputate a woman’s leg on the spot, ultimately saving her life. During the trial, several testimonies left a profound impact on those present. Among them was the heartrending account of a 12-year-old boy, whose father was an FBI serviceman. Following the funeral, the young boy consoled his grieving mother, declaring with unwavering strength, “Mum, I’m going to step up and take care of you now.” Equally devastating was the tale of a woman injured in the blast, who was faced with the heart-wrenching task of burying her 5-month-old baby in a closed casket due to the disfiguring effects of a severe head wound. The overwhelming emotions invoked by these stories were palpable, bringing both the jury and myself to tears.

Perhaps for some readers, Toobin’s writing, though factual, could benefit from delving further into the profound human experiences and emotions surrounding this tragic event, allowing readers to fully grasp the lasting impact on those affected by the bombing. But Toobin didn’t intend to write such a story. Instead he wanted to remain factual, especially with the added storyline. More of that later.

“No plan B”

McVeigh was a competent soldier who fought in the first Iraq war. The army was his life and gave meaning to an otherwise meaningless life. His time in the military fostered a sense of camaraderie with like-minded individuals and exposed him for the first time to right wing extremist ideas. After he failed a try-out for the Green Berets his army life was over. As Toobin writes, “he had no plan B.” There was a terrible kind of momentum to the failure and frustration and outrage built up within him. What made McVeigh different from so many others that faced disappointments in their lives, was that he became determined to strike back. McVeigh’s failure began a spiral that ended four years later at the Murrah building.

The Turner Diaries, Waco and the shortwave radio

Disillusioned, he went home and started drifting towards a more and more radicalized right-wing view. His biggest ideological influence was a novel, The Turner Diaries, which depicts a fictional uprising against perceived government tyranny led by a white supremacist group who want to exterminate non-white races. The revolution served as a blueprint for McVeigh’s own radicalization and his belief in the necessity of violent action to bring about social change.
The standoff between the federal government and the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas was also a big influence. McVeigh attended the siege during the stand-off and can be seen selling right-wing bumper stickers from the hood of his car during a television interview. He believed that the Waco incident demonstrated the government’s willingness to use violence against its own citizens. Such actions called for a response.

For some of the younger generations it might be hard to imagine, but McVeigh had no access to internet or social media. Instead, he listened to shortwave radio which quickly became a platform for various fringe groups to share their views on politics, religion and various conspiracy theories. Especially Rush Limbaugh was the voice of an ascending right-wing authoritarianism, the movement that McVeigh embraced. In particular, McVeigh took Limbaugh both seriously and literally. McVeigh spoke so warmly and openly about the need to fight back against the federal government because he knew that many other people agreed with him. His goal was to push the Republican revolution one step further. The bombing would be the fuse that led to a nationwide rebellion.

Preparing the bomb

Thus, the preparations for the Oklahoma City bombing began. Timothy McVeigh was determined to take action, and Jeffrey Toobin’s account meticulously details the steps McVeigh and his accomplices took to construct the bomb. What struck me the most was the unsettling ease and casualness with which they went about their preparations, as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world. Buying 40 sacks of fertilizer didn’t raise any suspicion in rural Kansas, and acquiring fuel for the bomb wasn’t a problem either. They obtained the detonators by simply breaking into a deserted gravel mine, as if it were an inconsequential act. The moment when McVeigh casually demonstrated to an accomplice how to maximize the blast by adjusting the barrels sent shivers down my spine.

The bombing and arrest

The bombing took place on 9.02 AM in the 19th of April 1999. This was no coincidence: it was the second anniversary of the fiery end of the Waco siege. The human toll was devastating: 168 souls lost, including 19 children, with several hundred more injured. McVeigh drove northwards, only to be stopped by a trooper who noticed a beat-up Mercury missing a registration tag. During the subsequent investigation the suspect – Timothy McVeigh – admitted to having a weapon and said it was loaded. The trooper had drawn his own weapon and replied, “So is mine.” After just a few hours, McVeigh was already arrested.

The trial

Tobin extensively draws on the 635 boxes of documents that McVeigh’s lead lawyer donated to the university of Texas. Apart from that he had interviews with lots of participants, including then president Bill Clinton.

This explains why a significant part of the book is reserved for the trial. Toobin sheds light on the way the defense team worked on the case and the rift that soon emerged between defense attorney Stephen Jones and McVeigh. Jones employed various defense strategies to mitigate McVeigh’s culpability and secure a more favorable outcome for his client. He challenged the evidence by questioning the credibility and reliability of both evidence and witnesses but most importantly raised the possibility of a ‘second John Doe’, firmly believing that other individuals were involved in the bombing, suggesting a broader conspiracy. This caused a rift between Jones and McVeigh who wanted the sole responsibility and subsequent fame.

Toobin, who himself as an analyst covered the McVeigh trial, acknowledged he made a mistake: thanks to journalists covering the case, the impression lingered that McVeigh was an aberration: a lone and lonely figure who represented only himself. This notion, as history would show, was mistaken.

Right-wing extremism

This brings me to the other main theme for this book. Toobin sees the Oklahoma bombing not as a random act of terror by a demented individual, but a targeted political act of right against left. The political response to right-wing terror followed a pattern as well. Conservatives have long minimized the threat of right-wing violence and as in Oklahoma City, sought to blame terrorism on foreigners or left-wing groups. This was especially true after the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, because those attacks were genuinely the work of radical Muslim extremists. The right created almost a presumption that all terrorism originates with Muslims. This has included an enduring if futile effort to tie the Oklahoma City bombing to Muslim operatives. McVeigh understood the potential for his right-wing compatriots for joining him in action. He believed there was an army out there ready to rise. McVeigh failed to find his army because he had no efficient way to locate and mobilize potential allies. In other words, McVeigh didn’t have the internet and in particular social media. As it turned out, there was an army of McVeigh’s heirs out there, but it took the invention of cyberspace for the soldiers to find one another.

Donald Trump broke the pattern of right-wing terror rising under Democratic administrations and falling during Republic ones for a simple reason: he encouraged it. Trump won election as president, served in office and saw to remain there after he lost in 2020 by embracing political violence. From his earliest campaigning to his final moments as president, Trump employed the language of not so veiled physical threat. The resurrection of January 6th represented the apotheosis of Trump’s presidency when the implicit menage in Trump’s language, amplified by social media, was translated into unprecedented violence.

After the storming of the Capitol, the language of violence became standard within the modern Republican party. The kind of language that inspired McVeigh to destroy the Murrah building, just as it incited the January 6th rioters. This kind of language led to violence in the past, and will do so in the future.

  • Jeffrey Toobin

    Homegrown: Timothy McVeigh and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism

    ISBN: 9781668013571 | Pages: 432 pages | Publication date: May 2, 2023

    Buy on Amazon


Toobin has basically written two books in one. His first book is a factual account of McVeighs thoughts, preparations for the bombing and the trial that followed. The second book is a warning for the United States. After Oklahoma City, no politician defended the attack. But after January 6th, Republican politicians did just that. The Trumpist threat and the way the Republican establishment has embraced many of the same convictions that caused McVeigh to attack holds dire warnings for the future. From the Murrah building to the United States Capitol, Jeffrey Toobin's book examines the shared motivations behind acts of terror separated by two decades, offering a stark warning about the political reaction to right-wing violence.

— Bill
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