If but for a missing license plate, state police might not have caught Timothy McVeigh, or at least not soon after the crime. At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Ninety minutes later, an Oklahoma State Trooper pulled McVeigh over for driving without a license plate. The trooper found a concealed weapon and arrested McVeigh—without even realizing he’d captured the nation’s public enemy #1, before anyone even knew McVeigh was public enemy #1.
In a museum now standing at the site of the Murrah Building, the infamous 1977 Mercury Marquis with the missing license serves as the centerpiece artifact in a gallery that recounts the story of McVeigh’s capture.
By this point in my visit, I was nearly overwhelmed by the museum’s emotional weight, piled on by an intimately immersive experience and heartbreaking exhibits. Even as I reeled from the story of the attack itself, there was no time to grieve—and I wanted to—as the museum guided me right into the investigation. After all, there had been no time to lose.
And there was McVeigh’s Mercury Marquis. And opposite, there was McVeigh’s mug shot. And there was Abraham Lincoln.
The t-shirt McVeigh was wearing at the time of his arrest—now on display—featured an image of Lincoln along with the words shouted by John Wilkes Booth during Booth’s escape from Ford’s Theater: “sic semper tyrannis.” The back of the shirt, not visible, featured a quote from Jefferson: “The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of Patriots and Tyrants.” I noticed that it did not say anything about innocent victims. Or children.
As McVeigh himself indicated, both quotes have become popular slogans for far-right militants and activists, although I prefer the term coined by journalists Dan Herbeck and Lou Michel as the title of their book about the bombing: “American Terrorist.”
I feel compelled to point out, lest anyone accept it as “doctrine” from the Founding Fathers, that Jefferson’s comment was his individual opinion and not anything enshrined in any of the founding documents. It’s also important to point out that Jefferson made his comment during his rosiest optimism about the French Revolution, which he later admitted was a big mistake. “Your prophecies [about the French Revolution] . . . proved truer than mine,” he admitted to his longtime friend and political rival, John Adams, who had condemned it with dire warnings, yet still “fell short” in his predictions. “[F]or instead of a million,” Jefferson conceded, “the destruction of 8. or 10. millions of human beings has probably been the effect of these convulsions. I did not . . . believe they would have lasted so long, nor have cost so much blood.”
The Booth quote, which was and remains the Virginia state motto, also gets a lot of play in certain circles today. But who gets to decide who’s a tyrant? Lincoln was not universally loved in his day, but he DID get reelected by a convincing margin. Today, he still has his detractors, but he’s become a figure who’s as close to universally loved as anyone in American history.
But not by everyone, as Booth tragically illustrated. McVeigh and his ilk have likewise found a way to plumb history and come up with some things that served their needs.
It reminded me that we’re all looking for ways to look back at history for lessons we can then apply today. The term for his is “usable history”: how can we use history in a way that serves us today.
On one level, this is the implied purpose for the study of history. As I say to roundtables when I’m out on the lecture circuit, Emerging Civil War seeks to connect people to what we see as America’s defining event because, if we lose touch with our own history, we fail to learn the lessons it offers us and we become doomed to repeat its mistakes. I doubt there are many people reading this blog today who disagree with that sentiment.
Things get tricky, however, when we go fishing. Any single one of us can look back and pluck something from the past that serves our purposes today. We can use those historical examples to illustrate almost any “lesson” we want—and that becomes dangerous (as well as historically shaky). Does Virginia’s motto really advocate the assassination of presidents as Booth said, or the violent overthrow of Federal power as McVeigh suggested?
Some people will say “yes” to one or both of those questions, but really, who gets to decide? Don’t we have a lawfully elected government for a reason?
This is the question I suggest we ponder as we think about the question “What have we learned since the Sesquicentennial?” We kept that question intentionally broad so we could approach it from many angles and, I hope, illuminate the question by offering a variety of responses. I also hoped it would illuminate your thinking AND ours as a community of historians. We should all be constantly learning.
But we must be cautious of the inclination to find a “usable history” that proves those points we want to prove, that reinforces the lessons we want reinforced. History can only teach us if we approach it with an open mind. We need to be willing to learn and be willing to be taught.
That, of course, has been a central issue in contemporary events. It’s called “conformation bias.” We look for info that reinforces what we already know and (more insidiously) what we believe (whether our beliefs are based on fact or not). Those of us immersed in current events, particularly politics, can be tempted to look to the past and pluck out examples to illustrate our interpretations of current events. We can pluck out examples to show why we’re right in our thinking and the other side is wrong and look what will happen if our side doesn’t WIN! We misappropriate history when we do this.
As I reflect on “What have we learned since the Sesquicentennial,” I think of this question of usable history. As a society, we have not learned this lesson yet, but I do hope we have begun to learn that this lesson exists to be learned.
What we do with this new knowledge remains to be seen.
As we ponder that final thought, though, I will point to McVeigh and the lessons he chose to pull from history, and what he learned, and what the impact turned out to be. History can be abused just as easily as used—with real-world consequences.
For Related Content:
“Acts of Violence Against America” by Chris Mackowski, posted September 11, 2019
“Oklahoma City, JFK, and the Civil War” from the ECW YouTube page, June 10, 2019