|OKLAHOMA CITY STILL REELING.|
In 2000, for their Web site IssuePaper.com, Black Table editors Eric Gillin and Will Leitch drove across the country, talking to young people about politics and visiting various sites, including Columbine High School and the site of the Oklahoma City bombing. On today, the 10th anniversary of that bombing, The Black Table runs Will Leitch's report from visiting the Oklahoma City memorial.
It has been almost five-and-a-half years since a bomb went off at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring more than 800. It stands as the largest act of domestic terrorism in the United States (Ed. Note: Before September 11, of course). In April, on the five-year anniversary, the Oklahoma City National Memorial, serenity built on top of anguish, was dedicated. When the country thinks of Oklahoma City these days, it's viewed through the twisted prism of violence.
And it seems to be the same inside the city. On the front page of the August 6, 2000, edition of the Daily Oklahoman is yet another story about a woman who was in the building when the bomb exploded. The monument towers over the downtown area, literally and figuratively, and many of the adjacent structures, like the YMCA building right across the street, remain boarded up and lifeless. Almost any conversation with a local brings up the bombing, even before the interviewer has had a chance to broach the subject.
It's all too much for Andrew, 27, a geologist who works just a few blocks from the memorial. Asked about what effect the bombing continues to have on the city in which he lives, he pauses. He looks around conspiratorially, starts to speak, then stops. He glances over his right shoulder, then his left shoulder, then his right again. He leans forward and speaks in a voice that registers somewhere between a whisper and total silence. "In a sick way, that might have been the best thing ever to happen to this city. People here milk it all for publicity. They'll attach anything to it. Need more money for a project? Link it to the bombing. I mean, it was five years ago. We have other stuff to worry about."
Then there is Dr. Paul Heath. He was in the Murrah Building, working in suite 522 on the fifth floor, just 65 feet away from the bomb when it went off. He looked over his right shoulder upon hearing the explosion and glared directly into the blaze. He helped three people out of the building, including a man who had an eight-inch piece of glass in the back of his head and also lost an eye. Another man held his eye in his left hand when Heath made it to him. Despite being so close, Heath was one of only 14 of the 194 who made it out of the building who never needed to make a single visit to the doctor.
At the time, Heath was a counseling psychologist in the Veterans Affairs Office of the Murrah Building. After the bombing, however, he sprung into action, visiting the site for 17 consecutive days. Searching for absolution, he founded the Oklahoma City Murrah Building Survivor's Association, financed with $1,200 of his money. The group, which counts more than 300 among its members, met, and still meets, once a month. They started the Help Fair at nearby St. Luke's Church, where survivors could get their hearing, eyes and mental heath checked by local professionals. Various poems Heath has written about the bombing, often to victims' families, adorn a chain-link fence just west of the memorial.
He is obsessive about this. He has attended every session of Timothy McVeigh's and Terry Nichols' trials. He plans to continue this, attending Nichols' upcoming trial, in which the convicted faces the death penalty. He's the one who filed the lawsuit that forced McVeigh's judge to broadcast the Denver trial via closed-circuit television in Oklahoma City. (Ed. Note: McVeigh was executed in 2001, Nichols is serving multiple life sentences.)
Heath has been everywhere, and he's not letting up. It's 3:30 p.m. on a random Monday afternoon, and he shows yet another visitor around the memorial. Since founding the organization, he has been busy - meeting with President Clinton on several occasions, getting Congress to provide additional supplies and money to Oklahoma City, traveling across the world speaking about the aftermath of the bombing, pumping all the money he earns back into the Survivor's Association.
It is an investment that has changed Heath forever.
Now, he is running for office. Come November, voters in District 91will either select Dan Webb, the third-term Republican incumbent, or Heath, whose only previous civic experience is serving on the school board from 1983-87, to serve in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. (Ed. Note: Heath lost the election, garnering 38 percent of the vote.) Before the bombing, he was an anonymous citizen, reporting for duty at the Murrah Federal building. Since then, he has become a local celebrity. When he walks into an office building, the receptionist greets him with a huge smile and a cheery, "Hey, Paul!"
Meanwhile, about a quarter-mile away from the shining monument that was once N.W. Fifth Street, Terry Nichols sits in a state jail, awaiting a new trial, overlooking the peaceful place where park rangers refuse to speak his name. They can't. They're not allowed to. McVeigh becomes "the primary bomber." Nichols is "the secondary bomber." A ranger explains: "The families asked us to, here on hallowed ground, to never speak the names of those men. So we don't."
And thus lies Oklahoma City's perpetual problem. How much memorializing is too much? How much grieving can you do before it prevents you from living? Can one focus on tragedy so intensely that it becomes the sole focus? When is it OK, if it's ever OK, to actually move on?
"Some people have a need to shut a thing like this out quickly," Heath says. "I understand that. But it's important for people to come together here. In our association, everyone had a buddy. They would check on the other person two or three times a week, just stay in contact."
According to Heath, 78 percent of Oklahoma City residents know someone who was in the Murrah Building. That's nearly four out of every five people whose lives are directly related, instantaneously. Not to mention what the bombing did to the city. Projects long past their due date for redevelopment have gone untouched, languishing in perpetual limbo. There is enough to deal with.
The only thing that appears to have been touched is this new memorial, which people from across the country have come to visit, either to pay respect, to see the remnants of a dark chapter in American history or just to try to understand.
Rebecca, 19, is sitting with her grandparents at the edge of the vast shallow reflecting pool that spans where the precise dimensions in which the building once stood. She goes to college in Houston, but she's visiting them here. She speaks so quietly. "It's just so sad," she sighs. "I didn't realize how sad it would be."
Greg and Chelsea, both 27, both from Cordell, Okla., about 100 miles away, don't seem to know why they're here, only that they are. They took a week off of work to go on a vacation together and have ended up here, taking pictures silently, barely talking to even each other. "You can never forget about it," says Chelsea, "but you can try to just make peace." Greg solemnly interjects, subtly masking anger despite his clearly good-natured spirit, "This was just one insane act by one person who is a maniac. So many lives just destroyed."
Greg is not used to talking to reporters, and he is slowly rocking back and forth on his heels next to the water. He teeters a little too close to the reflecting pool, and for a moment, it appears he's going to step in it. He recognizes the misstep with a brief grimace and continues. The water is almost angelically serene. From a distance, it appears deeper than its two inches, so when two city workers step in it to remove the wishful coins that visitors have thrown, it appears as though they are walking on water. The powerful illusion seems somewhat appropriate.
The pool is the centerpiece of the memorial, bookended by the Gates of Time, one reading 9:01, the other 9:03. The explosion happened at 9:02. Rebecca places her hands in the water and places them on the copper gate, like many others have done before her. Her ghostly handprint joins the others, a wet brown etching on the tan metal surface. Just north of the pool is Survivor's Tree, planted there by those who witnessed the horror. Heath sent seedlings from it to Columbine High School; they were subsequently planted on school grounds.
But the southern section of the memorial is the toughest. There, atop grass that is not to be walked upon, sit 168 chairs, aligned in nine rows to represent the nine floors of the building (five chairs are situated to the far west to represent the five people killed outside of the building by the blast). On the base of each chair is the name of a victim. There are 19 small chairs. They were the children.
For some, this is too much to take. A woman sitting with her adolescent son on a bench overlooking the chairs sees a notebook and a man approaching to talk to her. She makes eye contact with him, sighs and shakes her head, slowly, without anger or apprehension. Just fatigue and sorrow. She can't talk, not now, not here.
Is this healthy? Heath certainly believes so. He is hopeful, and he should be. As someone who somehow escaped any harm in the explosion yet saw friends die from it, as someone who is constantly out there, reminding people of what happened, he, if anyone, can focus on the living without forgetting the dead.
Heath, who has seen two of the three men he saved die, has only this to say: "I feel proud. I live in the safest, greatest place in the universe."
Will Leitch is managing editor of The Black Table.