The OKC Bombing, the Millennialist Right, and Terrorist Realities and Phantoms in the work of Michael Barkun

Paul Harvey

On a more serious note than the below, and in remembrance of a hugely significant day for my home state, today of course is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, an event that didn't entirely surprise me (albeit the scale and destructive force were shocking) given the level of conspiratorial and hate-mongering rhetoric amongst the various far right groups that was prevalent in the state prior to that time (although the perpetrator was from New York, and his accomplice from Kansas, so not to overly provincialize the causation). Incidentally, if you ever find yourself in downtown OKC, the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum is a terrific memorial site, largely free of the treacly sentimentalism that I feared would dominate. Instead, the memorial is simple, stark, and reflective, as good a remembrance as one could hope for.

Reflecting on the Oklahoma City tragedy, and its antecedent in the David Koresh and the Branch Davidian debacle at Waco two years previously, the religious studies scholar Michael Barkun produced one of the most thoughtful examinations of the subject, one that foreshadowed a good deal of the culture of fear that emerged after 9/11, in his essay "Reflections After Waco: Millennialists and the State," originally published in the June 2, 1993 Christian Century, and later reprinted in The Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America Since 1945, edited by Phil Goff and myself.

In his essay, Barkun traces the tragic story of the misunderstanding between Koresh and the ATF, and how the inability of the ATF and other agents to understand Koresh's millennialism had the ironic and terrible effect of feeding further into that very millennialism, leading up to the conflagration at the compound and the deaths of the agents attempting to storm it. He wrote of how "the single most damaging mistake on the part of federal officials was their failture to take the Branch Davidians' religious beliefs seriously." Instead, the natural impulse was simply to result to the tag label of "cult": "The very act of classification itself seems to make further investigation unnecessary," made worse by the reliance on a network of so-called "cult experts": "Like many other law-enforcement agencies, the FBI hass relied heavily on this questionable and highly partisan expertise--with tragic consequences. It was tempting to do so since the hostility of those in the 'anti-cult' movement mirrored the authorities' own anger and frustration." The end result, according to Barkun, was that "the government's actions almost certainly increased the resolve of those in the compound, subdued the doubters and raised Koresh's stature by in effect validating his predictions."

Barkun furthered his investigation of millennialist groups on the right with his 1996 book Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement, a study of the long history of the Anglo-Israelite movement which somehow wound its way down, in a somewhat bowdlerized but nonetheless potent form, to the latter-day militia movements and other groups who influenced Timothy McVeigh and others of his ilk. Barkun then went on to produce a far-ranging survey of A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America.

Today's UNC Press blog features an interview with Barkun about his new book (the first I had heard of this text) Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security Since 9/11. A brief excerpt:

Q: How did you get interested in government homeland security policy?

A: If we think of homeland security in the broadest sense, it goes back to the mid-1990s, the years of the armed standoff at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, the growth of the militia movement, and the Oklahoma City bombing. The FBI had failed to grasp the importance of religion in the Waco standoff and was now trying to figure out how to factor religion into their decision-making process, an enterprise in which I was involved. In that period, of course, the emphasis was on domestic sources of violence, not foreign terrorism, a focus that didn’t change until 9/11.


Kelly J. Baker said…
This is not surprising, but I adore Barkun's work and use it quite frequently in my own. His willingness to study those we might not want to makes his work a necessity to understanding the far and not-so-far right. Nice post, Paul!

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