No, The Buffalo Bills Didn’t Cause The Oklahoma City Terrorist Attack
Author Sam Anderson puts forward a rather strange hypothesis in Politico.
Sam Anderson, who Politico describes as a “ New York Times Magazine staff writer and the author of Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding… Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis,” has a truly bizarre piece in Politico Magazine that appears to tie the April 19, 1995, terrorist attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City to the fate of the Buffalo Bills.
As silly as it sounds, Anderson takes up a considerable amount of screen space framing his argument. Much of it is familiar to anyone who followed professional football in the 1990s. After years of bad luck, the Buffalo Bills suddenly found themselves to be one of the best teams in the AFC if not the entire National Football League. With future Hall of Famers such as Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, Andre Reed and Marv Levy on the roster, this team from a cold, cold city in Upstate New York was able to beat franchises that had dominated football throughout the 1970s and 1980s. For a city that had seen so many jobs leave town as industries moved south or overseas, it gave people something to rally behind. As the 1990 season came to a close, the team seemed unstoppable.
Then, the Super Bowl happened.
Super Bowl XXV, which took place in late January 1991 as American forces were poised on the border between Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait as part of Operation Desert Shield, is perhaps best remembered for its ostentatious display of patriotism capped off by what remains the definitive rendition of the National Anthem by Whitney Houston. For Buffalo Bills fans, though, it became the beginning of four years of disappointment. The game was close for most of the first three quarters, but the New York Giants managed to take a 17-12 lead to start the Fourth Quarter. Buffalo briefly took the lead with a touchdown, but the Giants got the ball back and marched back down the field to get a Field Goal and a 20-19 lead. Then, the inevitable happened. The Bills got the ball within Field Goal range within the last five minutes of the game. A Field Goal would have put them up by a point and given the Giants little time to pull off a last minute game-winning drive. Unfortunately for Buffalo, Scott Norwood’s kick went wide right, the Giants got the ball back and ran out the clock.
Despite that setback, the Bills managed to bounce back the next season and make it all the way to Super Bowl XXVI in Minneapolis. Things didn’t go much better, though, and despite outscoring the Washington Redskins 24-20 in the second half, the Bills lost the game 37-24. Despite this second loss, the Bills continued to dominate the AFC in 1992 and made it to Super Bowl XXVII. This time, though, the game wasn’t even close, with the Bills losing 52-17 to the Dallas Cowboys, becoming the first team to go to three consecutive Super Bowls and lose all three games. Finally, of course, there was Super Bowl XXVII, where again the Bills managed to defy the odds and make it back to the championship game where they once again faced the Cowboys, and lost 30-13, setting a record for championship futility that has yet to be equaled in any major American sport.
While all of this was happening on the field, a young guy named Timothy McVeigh was growing up in the Buffalo area and went off to war in the Persian Gulf. I’ll let Anderson pick up the story from there:
The young man was Timothy McVeigh. He was a Buffalo Bills superfan. McVeigh grew up in a rural town called Lockport, just on the edge of Buffalo—the fringe of the American fringe—and Bills football was a sort of religion for him. He was a bright but scrawny kid (“Noodle McVeigh,” bullies called him) raised mostly by his father, who worked at a radiator factory. During McVeigh’s adolescence, his mother took his sisters and moved to Florida. But McVeigh chose to stay behind, with his dad, with the Bills. Before he left for Iraq, he had actually been there in the stadium, in Buffalo, to watch the Bills’ first run to the Super Bowl; he was part of the jubilant Buffalonian mob that rushed the field to tear down the goalposts after the game with the Dolphins.
Immediately afterward, McVeigh went off to the Gulf, where he established himself as a rising star of a soldier—an acer of all the tests, an unbelievably accurate shot, a meticulous cleaner of guns and uniforms and of the Bradley armored vehicle in which he was the gunner. In 1991, when the Bills were losing their first Super Bowl, McVeigh was busy overseas, preparing to take part in Operation Desert Storm. He would be at the crest of that overwhelming military wave: tanks from horizon to horizon, rolling forward to stamp out the terrible despot holding the world’s oilfields hostage.
Like many young soldiers, McVeigh shipped out as an idealist and came home a cynic. The mighty Iraqi army he had trained so hard to fight turned out to be nothing more than a sparse, disorganized, underequipped handful of soldiers straggling across the desert, begging to be allowed to surrender. McVeigh saw abandoned corpses being eaten by dogs. He listened to the U.S. military lie about murdering civilians. And he became, himself, a killer. In the midst of all the chaos of smoke and sand, to the amazement of everyone around him, McVeigh took out an Iraqi soldier in a bunker with a miraculous shot from something like a mile away. He watched, through his scope, the man’s head and body burst. McVeigh hated all of this. He did not feel like a hero. The war, for all intents and purposes, was over in less than a week, and McVeigh was awarded five medals.
Now it was two years later, 1993, and Timothy McVeigh was back home in Buffalo, and his life—his exceptional mind, his rising military career—had gone to shit. After Iraq, McVeigh went to try out for the Special Forces but, broken by the war, performed poorly and dropped out. At age twenty-four, he was a washed-up war hero with nothing going for him, no community or connections, no meaningful way forward. So McVeigh called his bookie and wagered $1,000 on the Super Bowl.
The game that McVeigh wagered $1,000 on was the Bills third appearance, the one where they were blown away by the Cowboys. From there, Anderson picks up the narrative:
Just four weeks after that disastrous Super Bowl loss, McVeigh found and latched onto the cause that would define the rest of his life. A group of citizens in Waco, Texas—a religious cult called the Branch Davidians—had refused to surrender its weapons to the federal government. A standoff ensued, and McVeigh became obsessed. He read and watched everything he could, then loaded his car with anti-government pamphlets and bumper stickers (“When guns are outlawed, I will become an outlaw”) and drove down to see the action firsthand.
He sold his paraphernalia to other militants and gave interviews to the news media in support of the persecuted. When, some weeks later, the Waco situation went terribly wrong—the FBI set fire to the compound, killing almost everyone inside—McVeigh watched the news footage and wept. That injustice became the core of his case against the United States government. Revenge became his life’s mission.
I am not saying that Timothy McVeigh bombed Oklahoma City in 1995 because the Buffalo Bills lost four Super Bowls in a row. (They made it back in 1994 and—incredibly—lost that one too, cementing their reputation as the greatest losers in NFL history.) Such a claim would be absurd. Human motives are incalculably complex. But that Buffalo heartbreak was one of the many shadows that fell across McVeigh’s life between his unstable childhood and his perpetration of mass murder in Oklahoma City.
The almost unbelievable failure of the Bills, and the civic pain it caused, amplified his native pain. After McVeigh returned from the Gulf War, his Bills fandom was one of the few positive social networks he was able to plug back into, one of the most powerful, stable, visceral communities to which he unquestionably belonged. Its failure was devastating, to him and to everyone else in the area. To this day, even well-adjusted Buffalonians walk around imagining alternate lives in which their team actually won four Super Bowls in a row, becoming arguably the greatest team in NFL history, putting the city on the map in a way it otherwise never could have dreamed of.
Or at least won one Super Bowl, securing a happy little foothold in history. Instead, that 1990s Bills team is remembered as a tragic joke. It’s easy to pretend that sports doesn’t matter in real life, but for many millions of people, it does. It matters profoundly, every day.
After Super Bowl XXVII, Timothy McVeigh went looking for somewhere else to be, something else to do—something bigger, more meaningful, more real. Reality had failed him, in so many ways, so he went off to pursue his own fantasy of justice, very far from Buffalo.
As noted, Anderson says he isn’t saying that the Bills losing the Super Bowl four times in a row is somehow responsible for McVeigh’s decision to hook up with one of the right-wing militia groups that were rising up in the country in the early years of the Clinton Administration. If that’s the case, though, then what wonders what the point of the nearly 2,500-word piece, adapted from Anderson’s forthcoming book about Buffalo’s fall and renaissance, actually might be. Of all the things that McVeigh was dealing with, from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to economic resentment due to his inability to find a job, the fact that he washed out of training for Special Forces after the Persian Gulf War to the attraction he apparently had to the political message that the militia groups were sending and everything else that was happening in the early 1990s, it seems as though the fate of a football team was the least of his concerns. Additionally, Anderson’s hypothesis notwithstanding, it seems highly unlikely that the events of April 19, 1995, might have been avoided if the Bills had just managed to win one of the four Super Bowls they managed to qualify for seems incredibly simplistic and utterly silly when you think about it. The forces that led McVeigh to do what he did were complicated, but it seems unlikely that tragedy could be avoided if only the Bills had won the Super Bowl.