The Oklahoma City Bombing by Joann Bell (March 1996)

April 19, 1995 will always be a day when every Oklahoman will remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when the bomb exploded.

At 8:50 a.m. that morning, I was conducting business at the drive-through of our bank, which is directly across the street from the ill-fated Alfred Murrah building. Having finished my business, I had left the bank and entered the ACLU offices at almost exactly 9:00 a.m. When the explosion occurred at 9:02, the very power of it made me fall to one knee. The ACLU Oklahoma office is located exactly 16 blocks due north of the Murrah building. This will tell you just how very powerful the explosion was. All around us plate glass windows were and still remain shattered.

Thinking that possibly a home had exploded and that maybe I could help, I immediately got in my car and drove toward the smoke, which seemed to be only a few blocks away. As I approached the scene, people were running away from the area, covered in blood. Loud, terrifying screams could be heard. Some were wandering in the streets, dazed.

Since the explosion had just occurred, no emergency personnel were yet on the scene. Getting a glimpse of the area with burning automobiles, glass, black and white smoke and debris is a picture I have played over and over in my mind–shock and disbelief that I was actually seeing what I was seeing. Normally I am one who remains calm in an emergency situation–but I felt totally, totally helpless. I quickly turned my car around and came back to my office thinking I should quickly call for help, only to find out our phones were dead. Since other staff had arrived, we went to the Red Cross building along with hundreds of others, to offer our assistance in any way possible.

A young man was face down in the grass, sobbing because his mother was in the building and they wouldn’t let him near the site. At this point a frantic call for blood, any and all medical personnel, and rescue workers went out. I will not soon forget the scene at the main blood bank where hundreds of people were lined up around the block to donate. A volunteer in my office knew that her best friend’s daughter worked in the bombed building and she left to be with her family. The 23-year-old mother of a beautiful two-year-old daughter was indeed a victim and her body was one of the last to be recovered.

A family friend rushed to the scene where his daughter worked in daycare at the YMCA. He had to walk two miles to get to the scene only to be told his daughter had been killed. He went to one of the local hospitals and found his daughter, covered with blood, very much alive, holding two injured children on her lap. Still today, we find out that someone we have come in contact with or friends-of-friends are named among the victims. Working in the professional world of courts, government agencies and social programs puts us in daily contact with many, many people. Not one of us has gone untouched by this tragedy. And it is a tragedy.

One would have to live under a rock not to see what has happened as an aftermath of this event. Being a Freethinker and a Civil Libertarian in Oklahoma has never been easy. While the entire world may see Oklahoma City as a shining example of togetherness during this time, some underlying events have troubled me greatly.

It was very convenient for the blame of the bombing to be immediately directed to our Middle Eastern citizens and neighbors. One man was even returned to Oklahoma City from London just because he had a scheduled flight out of Oklahoma City on the day of the bombing. Another family tells of angry citizens standing outside their home, hitting on their windows and doors–just because they are from the Middle East. The woman, who was seven months pregnant, was so badly frightened that she suffered a miscarriage and lost her child. The YMCA daycare worker desperately needs plastic surgery on her face yet she has been unable to obtain any aid. To add insult to injury, she later found out the YMCA stopped paying their employees at 9:00 on the day of the bombing.

When a “Gulf War hero,” a young man who looks just like “the boy next door” was arrested, we could sense actual disappointment in some citizens that the crime may have not been committed by Middle Easterners. Yet the Middle Eastern citizens of Oklahoma City collected $24,000 to donate to the victims but were denied the right to be a participant at the April 23rd “Memorial” service.

Of course, we are being flooded with politicians and preachers (which most of the time means the same thing in Oklahoma). Going to the Civic Center in downtown Oklahoma City on business the day after the bombing, I was met at the door by a U.S. Congressman screening individuals who wished to enter the building. I felt like it was a media opportunity for him. The Civic Center had become the headquarters for all press conferences for release of information. Television and media are here from all over the world. I’ve been appalled to see a live press conference with our governor standing in front of the bombed-out building–which I now looked at as a tomb–actually calling out for more death by vowing a “quick death penalty” for those responsible for the bombing. I felt like the last thing the state needed to hear about was more death.

Prayer services were held everywhere–in city, state and federal buildings, in every church, on every street corner, in schools, at the bombing scene. Local talk radio callers are quick to tell everyone that “god had nothing to do with this bombing–it’s the work of the devil” and it’s “god’s will that many have survived.” On Sunday, April 23rd, a massive memorial service was held at the Oklahoma State Fair Arena and was attended by everyone from President Clinton to the Rev. Billy Graham. Later, Rev. Jesse Jackson was here.

I try to keep telling myself that people mean well, their intentions are good, da-da-da-da da da. But I’m angry. Angry at the unnecessary death and destruction. Angry that hate is being spewed from every pulpit on every Sunday morning. Angry about intolerance being taught. Angry that just because one doesn’t subscribe to the majority beliefs that one is wrong. Angry that I have but one voice to speak out for reason.

It has been said that we will never be the same here in Oklahoma. I hope not. My hope is that we will all look at each other with kindness and tolerance each day; that we greet each new morning with the knowledge that we can change and make this world a better place. Yes, there was a definite coming-together for Oklahomans and we need to realize that we did that ourselves–we carried the dead and dying in our arms, we donated our blood, we swept up shattered glass, we collected food, money and clothing for our victims. We hugged each other, we cried. We did all that and we need to continue to do that.

January, 1996. Nine months have passed since “the bombing.” This city will never be the same. Millions of dollars have been donated to the victims and their families–and now questions are being asked about how the money has been distributed (or not distributed). Some families claim they have never received any aid, even for burial expenses. The bombing has been used by all the greedy politicians to promote their “give ’em the death penalty” agenda. Tour buses at the sight are common. A chapel, built across the street from the bombed building in a church parking lot, is a gathering place for many out-of-state visitors. Literally thousands of faded plastic flowers, cards, tee-shirts, wreaths, stuffed animals and Christmas trees decorate the fence erected around the cite. Even a huge cross made from evergreens decorate the sight. A calendar, using firemen and rescue workers in cheesecake poses, has recently been released as a fund-raiser–with a small percentage promised to “victims and families.” Victims’ families are asking many questions concerning the investigation of the incident. One young mother who lost both her preschool sons went on television and reported that she was told to “quit asking so many questions.”

The suspects are being held in a federal facility in El Reno, Oklahoma, approximately 35 miles west of Oklahoma City. They are transported to downtown Oklahoma City, directly across the street from the bombed building, when they are required to attend hearings. The movement of these suspects to hearings immediately becomes a media event. The wheels of justice are slowly turning and a trial will probably begin sometime in 1997 and the general opinion is that it will not be held in Oklahoma. Each are represented by excellent attorneys. I think they will receive a fair trial but I wouldn’t want to serve as a juror.

The families say they are being denied their chance to heal. They are tired of the decorated fence around the site. They are tired of being asked questions. They are angry, frustrated, grieving. They grow weary of the constant news stories. They are just plain tired.

I will always think of April 19, 1995 as I always have thought of Nov. 3, 1963 when I was 17 years old and President John Kennedy was killed. I will remember both days as beginning in an ordinary fashion. I will remember that I went to sleep those evenings with such sadness and heavy, helpless feelings. I will remember the empty feeling.

Joann Bell is Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. She is also a former prevailing federal plaintiff in a seven-year Oklahoma school prayer case, Bell v. Little Axe. Her position allows her the freedom to monitor and work on state/church-related issues in Oklahoma. She is also an active member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, FFRF, NOW, and Simply Equal.

Freedom From Religion Foundation