When you enter the Gates of Time — at 9:01am and 9:03am respectively — you enter a space where a minute exists in perpetuity. For as long as you remain between the gates, you are suspended in memoriam in a moment that no longer is. Yet, though seventeen years have passed, that minute endures there, through varying seasons and politics and time. Those sixty seconds alone do not change. They are always with us — between the gates, as scars on our hearts, and branded onto our memories. The physical space where time continues suspended is defined, but the memory of that moment travels beyond Oklahoma City, the State, and any circumscribed border. Wherever Oklahomans are — or go — that minute is present.
Because it is always with us, it’s all the more painful when, for others, it seems so unremarkable. It hasn’t even been twenty years. Are your memories so short? Was that moment so inconsequential in your lives? For us, it haunts — no, not haunts — more like it aches, even in spite of the years of healing and growth that have come after. We’ve had a measure of revenge. We’ve honored (and still do) those we lost. We’ve built a place to remember that is a model for the world in how to prioritize humanity in memorials to inhumane tragedies. Whatever else we fail at, our remembrance — our historical tribute — excels in nobility and sophistication. Our grief is dignified and remains authentic even after all these years.
Our profound sorrow turns bitter, though, when we see how little the history means elsewhere. It’s tough to choke down the truth that others remember the event so poorly. And, then, for that bad history to be used as a justification for systematized civic injustice… Insulting fails to characterize the effect properly.
Ironically, US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy studied history as an undergraduate. One would tend to assume then that he would be careful with historical facts. Maybe he spends all of his time in the thrall of James Madison and other Founders though, or perhaps he prefers ancient history to current events. Whatever the case, the painful, stinging reality is that his recall of the Oklahoma City bombing is flawed and fuzzy. If Kennedy did not sit on the highest court in the country, his poor historical understanding would only prick the hearts of Oklahomans, but he does, and instead that history has become a tool in a far-reaching legal dispute. Kennedy’s recent opinion allowing strip searches of those arrested for any reason — no matter how trivial the charge and without reasonable suspicion — springs from his law-and-order orientation, but it was in his bad historical understanding that he found justification for this broad, intrusive governmental power. Kennedy rationalized his position by noting that Timothy McVeigh was arrested for driving without a license plate — this minor offense led to the apprehension of a mass murderer, and thus, since little violations can aid in arresting dangerous criminals, intrusive searches based on the same are permissible.
Only, McVeigh wasn’t arrested simply because the car he was driving was missing its tag. That was why the state trooper first pulled him over — but this offense doesn’t always warrant arrest in Oklahoma. McVeigh might only have been ticketed and his car towed….except. Except that during the traffic stop, the trooper noticed a bulge in McVeigh’s jacket, which turned out to be a loaded semi-automatic handgun. Once Trooper Hanger discovered this — which McVeigh did not have a license to carry concealed in Oklahoma — he immediately pulled his weapon, disarmed his suspect and placed him in handcuffs. This was the point at which McVeigh was formally detained. The arrest was precipitated by the gun — not the missing tag.
Clarity on this detail is important,and scrutiny of the facts is more than scholastic hair-splitting. Firstly, it insists that we remember the history and do so properly — something that may not mean much to others but is greatly significant to the people of Oklahoma. Is it really so much to ask that you remember this most horrific and horrible event accurately? We cannot forget it. It hurts that we have to remind you of it and that you recall it so badly. Further, it cuts that a poor history of this event be used to justify governmental intrusion into the personal privacy of those who survived it. The victims are now potential peers of the bomber. Somehow, they have become an equivalent threat if they accumulate too many parking tickets or write a bad check. How oblivious is Kennedy to the irony of his use of McVeigh’s misguided attack against tyrannical government? The incongruity bends back upon itself. The history just bends over, a malleable narrative used to make silly law.
But, that is outside. Within the Gates, it is still 9:02am and the world is shattering. The minute is the present past and not yet written in books. As McVeigh makes his way out of downtown with his weapon concealed, papers are still falling, concrete yet buries adults and children alive, and Oklahomans teeter on the brink of collectively meeting their great sorrow.