On April 19, 1995, an extremist named Timothy McVeigh drove a rented Ryder truck full of explosives and parked it next to a federal building in the heart of Oklahoma City. The blast destroyed the building and took the lives of 168 people, including 19 very young children.
Standing at the site today is a phenomenally moving and appropriate memorial. Nearby, on what is now a continuous site, is the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum, in a building that had housed the Oklahoma Journal Record, which was damaged in the blast but remained intact (unlike some of the other surrounding buildings).
This museum is exceedingly well designed, and is a moving and informative experience. The museum does a good job of balancing a few different aspects of the story. One is to stress that the day of the bombing started out as a lovely spring day, just a normal day for those in and around the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Another is to tell the individual human stories of those who died and of the survivors and rescuers who lived through the initial moments and ensuing days, weeks, and months following the tragedy. And finally, it gives information about Timothy McVeigh and his co-conspirator Terry Nichols, the investigation that tracked them down, and the judicial process that determined their final fates.
The exhibits do an amazing job of conveying the calm at 9:01 am before the bombing, and the chaos that ensued at 9:02 am and following. This is accomplished through audio, video, fragments of building and personal belongings found in the rubble, and also through the layout and design of the exhibit. It is an immersive experience.
One thing I was quite impressed by – both with the museum’s exhibits and also regarding the actual event – was that the investigation as to the cause and the culprit began immediately as law enforcement entered the crime scene, which was just moments after the blast. It was a contrast to the JFK assassination – the site of which we had just visited the day before – in which the evidence-gathering process and the investigation of the assassin was, frankly, bungled from beginning to end. The first responders to the Oklahoma City bombing were such incredible professionals that they had evidence – and leads to the assassin – within literally minutes after the bombing occurred.
There are a lot of displays, videos, etc to see and experience in this museum, so we were there for nearly 3 hours.
One of the most moving parts of the museum is the Gallery of Honor, a room in which all 168 of the deceased are honored with a 1’x1′ glass display, depicting each one’s name, photo, and a few personal items. The small children who died are displayed set off from the adults, and those displays are particularly poignant. The space provides a good opportunity to pause to reflect on the individual lives lost – most of whom were public servants – and mourn if the spirit so moves. (There is a box of tissues provided for the purpose.)
Upon exiting the museum, we walked around the memorial itself, which incorporates key symbolic features to memorialize the lost and encourage the living. The 168 chairs placed where the footprint of the building would have been are lovely and touching. The Survivor Tree is a wonderful symbol of the resilience of life, and a reminder of the possibilities of the human spirit to overcome tragedy. The Gates of Time with the Reflecting Pool in the middle are large, silent witnesses to how life was forever changed that day.
As the talk was getting started, a storm front was starting to roll in, with lightning in the background. The wind whipped through our little group as we gathered around the Survivor Tree to listen to the park ranger. There was just time to walk around the memorial one more quick time and take some more photos, before the rain started to come down. The sky opened up and poured just as we were driving away.
We went back after dinner and took photos at night. Like many of the memorials we love so much in Washington DC, the Oklahoma City National Memorial is very striking at night. We were glad we came back for it.
Great quote from the wall that surrounds the Survivor Tree patio: “The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated. Our deeply rooted faith sustains us.”
Although Oklahoma City is out of the way for almost everyone we know, I would highly recommend a visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial. It was an afternoon/evening well spent. The combination of the MLK Jr. assassination site (on Wednesday), the JFK assassination site (on Friday), and the Oklahoma City bombing site (on Saturday) wasn’t intentional – who plans a week of “violent extremism” tourism? But it was worthy of reflection.
When will the violence end?