The last day I spent with my dad was 28 years ago. It was Easter Sunday, which for our family, meant spending time together, eating (a lot!), playing games outside, and telling family stories. There was always a lot of laughter, and that evening, as I returned to college, I had no idea I would never see my dad again. Three days later, he died when a young man, a fellow American, detonated a truck bomb outside my dad’s office building, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. That young man was Timothy McVeigh, and he detonated that bomb because he hated the United States Government.
Last Thursday morning, when I listened to Michael Smerconish’s quote from the April 12 Washington Post interview with a member of the Discord group that served as the birthplace of the classified documents leak, my stomach lurched, and my heart stood still. The unidentified member, whose voice sounded jarringly young, stated, “There’s some anti-government sentiment…he (“OG”) disagreed with several occasions, such as Waco and Ruby Ridge.” Equally alarming was how nonchalant he sounded as he recounted the memory as if he were talking about something completely benign.
I heard the interview while driving to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum to speak to two groups of local 8th graders. Imagine the bizarre juxtaposition of wanting to share a hopeful message with middle schoolers on how violence is never the answer while hearing a young man flippantly mention that the leader of his clandestine group had shared grievances with your father’s killer. Timothy McVeigh became radicalized and motivated to kill after reading books and traveling many miles and hours to find like-minded individuals; radicalization can now happen in the comfort of one’s own home with access to the Internet.
In recent years, I have become aware that when I share my story with school groups visiting the Memorial, I look, well…old to them. I begin by telling them I probably look like their mom or their friends’ moms, but my sisters and I were close to their age when we lost our dad. When I give talks at the Memorial, I always pass by my dad’s photo, displayed with the others killed that day. His photo is frozen in time and has looked dated for many years. Unfortunately, what has not faded into a bygone era is the paranoia, hate, and radicalization that led to mass murder. Though the photos and method of communication and information gathering in 1995 have been outdated for many years, my message to young people, which is one of empowerment, has never been more relevant or necessary.
When I speak to young people, I remind them that they have tremendous power to prevent acts of violence, and they can do so by telling a trusted adult in their circle if they encounter anyone who threatens violence. When I grew up, acts of mass violence were unheard of, and I let them know that they also have a right to live without fear. Young people can also seek out information that is fact-based and credible, which is empowering in and of itself. A few people in Timothy McVeigh’s circle knew precisely what he was planning, and each had a choice. They could have chosen to intervene, call the police or tell someone willing to call the police. Instead, they decided to help him plan the murder of 168 innocent people. Timothy McVeigh thought he was taking down the United State Government. Instead, he killed innocent people doing everyday jobs like helping someone’s grandparents apply for social security.
The heart of the OKC National Memorial and Museum’s mission statement reads, “May all who leave here know the impact of violence.” I am gutted each time I share my story at the Memorial. Revisiting 1995 is still very painful, but I hope the kids who hear my message leave with a better understanding of how violence damages bodies as well as spirits. In speaking with some of the teachers whose classes visit the Memorial, I lament the fact that kids are growing up traumatized by events of mass violence. However, recently a teacher said, “I think the possibility that these events have become normalized to our students is even worse.” And that guts me more deeply than pulling myself together to tell them about the loss of my dad. We must not tolerate the normalization of violence.
According to a recent WSJ/NORC poll, the percentage of Americans who stated that community involvement is “very important” to them has dropped to 27% in 2023. I can’t help but wonder if one of the keys to pulling people out of their rabbit holes of social media despair and doom scrolling might just be to raise that number significantly. Just this evening, I met five college friends for dinner, which has become a monthly ritual. We guard the date with much enthusiasm. Our perspectives cover the whole gamut of the political spectrum, but that never interferes with our commitment to support and love one another. Likewise, my favorite day in Oklahoma City happens each year in late April when the OKC Memorial Marathon occurs. I love participating because I see people’s best side- when they do something helpful to lift and support others. Being on the receiving end of the world’s grace, as my family was in 1995, I am compelled to seek community and encourage others to do so.
Sara Sweet is passionate about serving Oklahoma City in various community volunteer roles, with the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum being the nearest and dearest to her heart. She enjoys spending time with her family, reading, hiking, finding great craft beers, and watching Chicago Cubs baseball in her free time. She holds a B.S. in Business Administration from Oklahoma State University. She has been married to Kyle since 1997, and they have three children.