Where where you when Oklahoma City happened and what was your initial impression?
Rachel Maddow: I was living in San Francisco at the time. I remember the phone ringing while I was unlocking the door to my apartment. It stopped before I got to the phone, but then just immediately started ringing again. It rang off the hook all day—this was before a lot of people had email addresses or spent time online, so everyone picked up the phone to call their family and friends—no one could believe it. I certainly couldn’t. I remember talking to a friend on that phone in my apartment hallway, and suddenly feeling visceral fear when it occurred to me that the bombing might not be a one-off, that it might be the first of multiple attacks.
Why is this story important now?
The story’s important now on its own terms—the Murrah Building bombing is the worst incident of domestic terrorism we’ve ever experienced as a nation. The families of the 168 people who were killed and the hundreds of people who were injured are real, flesh-and-blood casualties to whom we owe pure remembrance of the date, and commemoration of the lives lost and changed. I think it’s also an appropriate occasion to talk about the threat of domestic terrorism. How strong is the threat now, 15 years after McVeigh? Are we heeding warning signs that may be out there now?
Listening to his voice nine years after the execution, what are your impressions of McVeigh?
I have only a layman’s understanding of what it means to be a sociopath—but that’s what he strikes me as. The calm soldier’s affect that he so self-consciously adopts (and talks about on the tapes) doesn’t really mask his narcissism and his disinterested callousness toward life, and humanity. There’s a huge distance between the hero he is in his own mind, and how basely unheroic he seems to anyone hearing the tapes now. I personally am not a supporter of the death penalty—I believe that people are more than the worst thing they ever did—but hearing him talk, it’s hard not to wish him gone.
Did his tapes affect your impression of him or what he did?
It didn’t change my impression, so much as flesh it out. One important issue, I think, is the degree to which he didn’t consider himself to be a “lone wolf”. He really saw himself as part of the gun-rights, anti-government, so-called “Patriot” movement—he parrots a lot of their talking points. It’s difficult to listen to, because the talking points for those folks are similar now, in 2010, to what they were in McVeigh’s era. None of that is out-of-keeping with what we knew about McVeigh and anti-government extremism before hearing these tapes—but hearing it is jarring.
Do you think this program gives McVeigh too much of a platform to expound his anti-government views?
There’s a reason that in 15 years, McVeigh hasn’t been considered a martyr even by the extremist forces he thought he represented. There’s a reason, too, why McVeigh’s confederates resisted helping him with the bombing, and turned on him once he was arrested: McVeigh is profoundly unsympathetic—even repugnant—on his own terms; you don’t need to work to make him seem that way. Documenting his crime, his motivations, his sources of support, is in service toward ensuring that our country never goes through this sort of thing again.
"The McVeigh Tapes: Confessions of an American Terrorist" airs April 19, Monday, 9 p.m. ET on msnbc. Watch preview video clips here.