The title of the documentary “Oklahoma City” is a little misleading. The movie isn’t just about the April morning in 1995 when Timothy McVeigh parked a Ryder truck full of explosives next to a federal building and killed 168 people. It also tracks the events that prompted McVeigh’s homegrown terrorism.
The movie, which airs next Tuesday night on PBS, revisits the bloody siege at Ruby Ridge in 1992, not to mention the showdown the following year near Waco, Texas, that led to the deaths of David Koresh and his Branch Davidians.
“There’s a tendency to see these sorts of events as one-offs,” said the movie’s director, Barak Goodman, “these anomalous breaks from normality where some kind of crazy person takes it upon themselves to perform this terrorist act. But the fact is, much more often, there’s a movement behind these lone wolves.”
It didn’t just start with McVeigh. It also didn’t end with him.
The string of causes and effects that led to the massacre in Oklahoma is particularly relevant now. Donald Trump’s war on political correctness and his charged comments about Mexicans and Muslims, among other groups, have emboldened the radical right. Extremism is becoming more mainstream.
Though it wasn’t Goodman’s intent, “Oklahoma City” tries to make sense of our current, volatile era. And it’s not the only thing on television doing that.
On Viceland, the series “Hate Thy Neighbor” follows mixed-race British comedian Jamali Maddix as he travels the world getting to know members of various extremist groups. The show echoes CNN’s similarly themed “United Shades of America,” which airs its second season this spring, hosted by another comedian, W. Kamau Bell. In one episode, Bell, who is black, hangs out with members of the Ku Klux Klan.
And then there’s “Escaping the KKK,” the A&E series that was supposed to air this year, giving viewers a look inside one of America’s oldest hate groups. But airing this kind of show has its risks. After an uproar, during which critics claimed the series was normalizing racism, the show was canceled.
“Oklahoma City” is a fascinating and troubling exploration of the way far-right groups sprang up out of distrust for the federal government. Among the inciting incidents was Ruby Ridge. That event involved Randy Weaver, a Vietnam veteran and gun enthusiast, who lived off the grid. He was accused of possessing illegal firearms, and when he didn’t show up to his trial, federal agents bungled an attempt to bring him in. In the firefight that ensued, Weaver’s wife, son and dog were all killed; so was an agent.
Ruby Ridge was a nightmare that resulted in a $3.1 million payout for Weaver, and it reminded far-right extremists of why the government shouldn’t be trusted. Such fears were only confirmed when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI went after the Branch Davidians near Waco a year later. A siege ended with a conflagration that killed Koresh and his followers.
Though the Justice Department ruled that the fire was set by the Branch Davidians, conspiracy theories proliferated.
“Now it fits a pattern,” said Mark Potok, editor in chief of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s journal Intelligence Report. Many who didn’t trust the government held the (debunked) idea that the FBI set the fire, which confirmed their world view. Potok was a reporter with USA Today at the time, and he covered the siege. “Here is another group of heterodox people, and they were very into guns,” just like Weaver was. “That’s how the Davidians made their money.”
He added: “It’s hard to overemphasize how much guns are a part of this.”
When McVeigh confessed to the bombing in Oklahoma City, he admitted that both Waco and Ruby Ridge had enraged him. He was hoping to spur a revolt against the government, he said.
While “Oklahoma City” very clearly lays out where the far right came from, “Hate Thy Neighbor” and “United Shades of America” are more about understanding the individuals associated with these movements.
Bell shot the first season of his show in August 2014, before the obvious uptick in extreme right sentiments. At the time, he felt that viewers needed a reminder that the Ku Klux Klan still existed. He wanted the Klansmen on his show to spell out their theories as clearly as possible so that people would understand how insidious and crazy these beliefs were.
“For most people KKK members are a punchline, like a stand-up comedian’s joke – it’s not something to be taken seriously for most people,” Bell said during an interview last year. “But my point with the show is: Whether you take it seriously or not, it’s here.”
Although Bell focused on a different topic with each episode, he noticed a trend over the course of the season. Each show ended up being about one group moving into a place, resulting in another faction feeling as though they were being pushed out.
“The Klan, in their theory, they’re being gentrified,” he explained.
According to Potok, that’s a common argument for extreme right believers.
“One thing that’s happened with groups like the Klan is they have opportunistically tried to co-opt the language of the civil rights movement,” Potok said. “That idea has grown on the radical right that white people are being dispossessed.”
The Viceland host Maddix, meanwhile, is “just a normal dude trying to figure out what’s going on,” he said over the phone recently. “I don’t know if I’m curious or stupid.”
In the episode “America’s Far White,” Maddix spends time with a Pennsylvania family that has a dog named Adolf and a swastika flag flying atop their house. A couple of interesting trends emerge during his visit. The first is that the white nationalists in the episode are very sensitive to certain descriptors. They balk when Maddix uses terms like “racism” and “nazi.”
“I prefer National Socialist,” the family patriarch, Dan Burnside, corrects. He also blatantly tries to ingratiate himself to Maddix.
“Say hi to Jamali,” Burnside instructs his children. And he later explains that he wants to teach his kids about the positive impact of some black Americans, including the rapper DMX.
“I think we all innately have certain wants and needs and feelings,” Maddix said of the strange dynamic. Even a “national socialist” who advocates for genocide wants to be liked by a black comedian.
It just goes to show that even when television tries to make sense of what’s happening in the country, sometimes it’s just a lost cause.
“Oklahoma City” airs Tuesday, Feb. 7, at p.m. CT on PBS.
“Hate Thy Neighbor” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. CT on Viceland.