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The Oklahoma City Bombing: From National Tragedy, We Continue Through our Resilience to Work for Comfort, Strength, Peace, Hope and Serenity

by Sanford Coats,
U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma

Sanford Coats, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of OklahomaAs we pause to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, I hope you will also remember the most deadly terrorist attack in United States history prior to September 11, 2001 – the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.  Although the reasons and motivations of the perpetrators were markedly different, the Oklahoma City bombing, like the tragedies in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, shocked the conscience of every American.  The plot to kill innocent people in Oklahoma in 1995 was carried out by domestic terrorists, while those responsible for September 11 were radicalized foreigners.  Although fundamentally different in philosophy, purpose and cause, Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, and the September 11 co-conspirators were all intent on destroying our American way of life.

Their absolute failure to accomplish this objective is profound and palpable.  Instead of tearing our country apart, these senseless tragedies were followed by a renewed American spirit, a galvanizing unification of our country in purpose, and a vivid portrayal of our resilience and mutual support.  To see this spirit one must look no farther than at the remaining fence near the Memorial, where over 16 years later people from all over the globe still leave mementos to honor the lives lost.

We in Oklahoma are very proud of how we dealt with the Oklahoma City bombing and how we have prospered in the years since.  Most importantly, how we reacted has become known internationally as the “Oklahoma Standard.”  In the minutes after 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, Oklahomans began to rescue, investigate, supply, heal, and comfort.  Just like the morning of September 11, brave Oklahoma fire fighters, medical personnel, and peace officers risked their lives by going into a burning, unstable building in selfless acts of heroism to rescue survivors.  Indeed, one first responder gave the ultimate sacrifice, becoming one of the 168 casualties of the bomb.

These brave Oklahomans were quickly supplemented, reinforced, and relieved by rescue workers from all over this great nation who came to Oklahoma City to help in any way they could.  Indeed, some of these great heroes were among the first responders on September 11.  When the call came to return the favor in the days after September 11, Oklahomans proudly responded with a steeled determination drawn from the vivid and unenviable experience of terrorism.

Oklahoma City National Memorial

The effects of the bombing in Oklahoma City are still felt very profoundly.  The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum is a beautiful and fitting tribute to these victims of terrorism.  In the sacred land where the Murrah building once stood, there are 168 empty chairs that constantly remind us that these were real individuals with families and friends who were taken from us that day.  Of these chairs, there is a section of smaller chairs for the children whose young lives were lost that spring morning.  The Memorial Museum is an amazing place that allows visitors to experience what happened, to understand how we responded, and to discuss what we must do to prevent this from happening again.

In the corner of the Memorial is the Survivor Tree, an American elm that was just across the street from the truck, yards from the epicenter of the blast. Quite simply, this tree should not have lived.  But, in true rugged Oklahoma frontier fashion, the Survivor Tree refused to give up and has flourished in subsequent years.  It is a symbol to all that we will press on, prosper and not be defeated.  Saplings from the Survivor Tree have been planted all over the State of Oklahoma.

In a community of this size, most of us knew victims.  That was especially true for the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Oklahoma.  This office lost family members, countless friends, and many colleagues that morning.  In the months following the bombing, our dedicated public servants worked tirelessly in the investigation, prosecution, and ultimate convictions of McVeigh and Nichols.  Many of those employees remain in the office and continue to work on behalf of the citizens of the Western District of Oklahoma.  To say that I am proud to be their United States Attorney is a monumental understatement.

So, please remember the victims of terrorism in Oklahoma City during any discussion of terrorism in the United States.  As we reflect on terrorism in the United States, whether domestic or foreign, the words inscribed on the Oklahoma City National Memorial relay it best

We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence.  May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.