Later this month, Timothy McVeigh is finally due to be tried for his part in the Oklahoma bombing which left 168 dead. Whatever the jury decides, his story throws light on many of the darkest aspects of American life
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On The evening of 19 April 1995 a man called Richard Snell was executed by lethal injection in Arkansas. Ten years earlier a court had found him guilty of the murders of a black policeman and a pawnbroker he mistakenly believed to be a Jew. He appeared again in court a few years later, while still on Death Row, with members of a group called the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord after the FBI found evidence that they had planned to poison the water supplies of Washington and Chicago with cyanide. The charge was sedition - that they had plotted the overthrow of the US government.

As Snell lay strapped down in the executioner's chamber in Arkansas, the first dose of poison flowing through his veins, he cried: "Hell has victories. I am at peace."

At the time it seemed like a coincidence that hell had indeed scored a massive victory that very same day, just 12 hours earlier. At 9.02am on 19 April 1995, a bomb ripped through the Alfred P Murrah government building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring 500 others. But maybe it wasn't a coincidence. Maybe there was a connection between Timothy McVeigh, the 29-year-old former army sergeant who was later charged with the bombing, and the satanic Snell.

That, at any rate, will be the hypothesis of Stephen Jones, the lawyer defending McVeigh (who has pleaded not guilty) at the trial due to begin in Denver on 31 March. On what does he base this hypothesis? On the fact, established by FBI detectives, that on 5 April 1995, allegedly a matter of minutes before McVeigh booked the rental truck which delivered the bomb to Oklahoma City, he attempted to make a phone call to a far-right religious commune in Elohim City, eastern Oklahoma. The commune is run by the Reverend Robert Millar, a man whose reading of the Bible has taught him to despise black people and believe that those of Northern European descent are God's chosen. Now, it turns out that the Rev Millar was the "spiritual adviser" on Death Row of none other than Richard Snell, whose body was transported from Arkansas to Elohim City for burial.

Why, the question presents itself, would Jones wish to associate his client with Elohim and Snell? The answer is that Jones is considering planting the suspicion in the minds of the jury in the McVeigh trial that his client got mixed up with some shadowy people with their own far-right agenda. Jones has even hypothesised that maybe what happened was that "a group of people decided to give the old man a going-away gift - just blow up the building he had wanted to blow up" - but that McVeigh had nothing to do with it.

Far-fetched, perhaps. But, if Jones succeeds in piecing together a few threads linking McVeigh to neo-Nazi crazies, the story may come to sound no more far-fetched than the one about the Los Angeles Police Department having planted blood evidence on OJ Simpson. The lesson of the Simpson criminal trial, which Jones has thoroughly digested, was that if the defence comes up with a plausible alternative version of events, jurors may be persuaded to believe that sufficient grounds exist to cast "reasonable doubt" on what might otherwise be a watertight prosecution case.

How Strong is the case against McVeigh? As strong as the resources of the world's richest nation can buy. The Oklahoma criminal investigation is the largest, most expensive in American history. FBI investigators have interviewed more than 21,000 witnesses, have studied more than 400 hours of videotape and - extending their inquiries to outer space - have scrutinised satellite photographs taken by US intelligence agencies of 20 sites in Oklahoma and neighbouring Kansas. After the failures of the investigations into the Atlanta Olympic bombing and the TWA explosion, the FBI risks a public outcry if two years' work into the worst terrorist act ever perpetrated on American soil does not get results.

The only reason there is at least a chance of a conviction in this case is that an hour and a half after the bombing, as the general belief was taking root that it had been the work of Arab terrorists, the FBI had an extremely lucky break. McVeigh was stopped by a highway patrolman 60 miles north of Oklahoma City because the car he was driving had no licence plates. When he was pulled over, he was found to be illegally in possession of a 9mm pistol. So he was arrested and locked up in a police cell in a small town called Perry. It was only 48 hours later that local officials realised that McVeigh matched the identikit description of the chief suspect in the bombing, put out by the FBI following interviews with staff at the company where he was said to have hired the truck into which the explosives were packed.

The same day Terry Nichols, an old army buddy of McVeigh's, turned himself in near his home in Kansas, a short drive from where the bomb truck had been rented, after he heard media reports that the police wanted him for questioning. Numerous other suspects have come and gone and the FBI has finally settled on McVeigh and Nichols as the co-conspirators in the bombing. Nichols's trial, however, is being held separately from McVeigh's and a date has yet to be set. Both men have pleaded not guilty, but McVeigh's chances of getting off appear slimmer. In part this is because it is going to be very hard to find a juror who did not hear about a report published on 1 March in the Dallas Morning News alleging that McVeigh had confessed his guilt to his defence team. Jones described the article first as a hoax and then as a criminal act, claiming that the newspaper had broken into his files and lifted hundreds of documents. Whatever the truth of the matter, the damage to McVeigh's case has been done. According to the newspaper report, broadcast and reprinted in every corner of the United States, McVeigh told an unnamed "defence lawyer" that he had planted the bomb by day and not by night because he wanted "a body count". Should prosecutors get hold of the original documents purportedly obtained by the Dallas paper they will certainly try to use them in court.

Otherwise the prosecution case will rest on the testimony of eyewitnesses - who are reported to have seen him, but not Nichols, outside the Murrah building shortly before the bomb went off - and a substantial body of physical evidence. McVeigh's fingerprints were found on a receipt for 40 bags of ammonium-nitrate fertiliser, the chief ingredient in the bomb, that the FBI found during a search of Nichols's home which also uncovered a supply of detonators and blasting caps. The prosecutors will present evidence that McVeigh and Nichols assembled the bomb in a park near Nichols's home. But hereafter, again, the evidence against McVeigh appears far more compelling. Traces of explosives were found on his clothes and in the car he was driving when arrested, a beige Mercury that witnesses also say they saw at the scene of the explosion. And then there is the prosecution's star witness, Michael Fortier, a close friend of McVeigh's with whom he shared a house in Arizona. Fortier was arrested in connection with the case in the summer of 1995 but the FBI persuaded him to testify against McVeigh, the best man at his wedding, in return for lesser charges. Fortier is expected to testify that he and McVeigh had cased the building in Oklahoma a few months before the bombing and that McVeigh later told him he planned to put explosives in 55-gallon barrels, load them on to a truck and then a drill a hole into the back of the truck for the fuse. Fortier is not, however, expected to testify against Nichols. Indeed he is reported to have told investigators that McVeigh asked him to join the plot after Nichols backed off.

Impressive as the material evidence against McVeigh - if not Nichols - appears to be, Stephen Jones has a few cards up his sleeve, quite apart from his seemingly wild theories about Richard Snell, and others he has proposed which have purported to link the bombing, without a shred of evidence, to Iran, Iraq and Sudan. Eye witnesses are notoriously susceptible to contradictions and failures of memory on the witness stand and, according to Jones, some of those who mean to testify against his client have already signalled some weaknesses in confusing statements they have made to the police which he plans to probe in court.

Jones's trump card, he hopes, was provided by the judge during a preliminary hearing in the case, when he ordered the prosecution to hand over to the defence a Department of Justice report on problems within the FBI's crime laboratory in Washington. Three supervisors at the lab who evaluated evidence in the Oklahoma case are reported to have been criticised in the report for sloppy work and a fourth has withdrawn as a witness in the McVeigh trial. Jones, smelling another whiff of the Simpson trial, is licking his lips at the prospect of putting the FBI technicians in the dock. "I think they are engaged in forensic prostitution," he said last month. "The FBI lab work will be subjected to close examination during the trial." If they fail the examination and McVeigh is acquitted, Louis Freeh, the director of the FBI, will come under pressure to resign.

Assuming That Jones does manage to cast some doubt on the evidence, the outcome of the trial may turn on the prosecution's ability to build up a character portrait of McVeigh that is sufficiently bizarre to convince the jury that he could have committed so savage a crime. The answers to the question why he did it, if he did it, will provide by far the most interesting drama of the trial for they may be expected to illuminate much that remains a mystery about the sick underbelly of the world's richest, most powerful nation. For the most remarkable thing about the Oklahoma bombing was its spectacular irrationality. Whatever else the court will find, one thing that can be stated with confidence now is that the murder of the 168 innocents obeyed no clear political logic. When the IRA detonates a bomb in London; when the Basque separatists of ETA set off an explosion in a Spanish airport; when Muslim radicals blow up a US military base in Saudi Arabia, no one is in any doubt that there is method in their madness. They aim to drive the enemy out by making the price of a continued "occupation" too high.

The Oklahoma bomb was madness without method. No organisation claimed responsibility. No objective was defined and none was met. It was an expression of rage, or spite, or self-hate. Like Richard Snell's plans to poison the Washington and Chicago water supplies; like the bomb at the Atlanta Olympics. The American terrorist is a unique kind of animal. He does not seek to make a connection between cause and effect, he is driven by a need to placate the demons inside his head.

What are the demons inside McVeigh's head? What circumstances in his life led him, if led he was, to kill so indiscriminately? Is there something about America, some tragic flaw in the system, that can impel an individual to commit an act so evil?

McVeigh's childhood was disturbingly ordinary. Brought up in Pendleton, a quiet suburb of Buffalo in upstate New York, he grew up with his two sisters in a fifth-generation, blue-collar Irish-American family. He went to Catholic church and neither excelled nor failed at school. He was, by all accounts, a happy, outgoing little boy. But then came the divorce of his parents, William and Mildred, when he was 10. His mother moved out to Florida with one of his sisters and young Tim started to withdraw into himself. As a teenager his classmates remember him as an outsider, a distant young man who was not unfriendly but never forged any close friendships. His friends were not people, it turned out, but guns. He would spend hours alone lovingly oiling his guns. While still in his teens he accumulated an impressive personal arsenal. The first job he took after leaving high school was as a security guard. Workmates remember that in addition to the licensed handgun provided by his employer he would come to work with two or three weapons of his own. Once he turned up for a shift with a sawed-off shotgun and bandoliers slung across his chest like Rambo. His workmates did not know whether to laugh or be alarmed. But what did become evident to them was that he was too intense, too restless, too highly strung to be trusted with keeping the peace in a small all- American town.

In May 1988, aged 20, he joined the army. Here he met Terry Nichols, who had fled civilian life to escape a failing marriage and a pile of unpaid debts. Nichols was 13 years older but the two became fast friends, bonded in large part by their common fascination with guns. Nichols left the army a year later to sort out a divorce, look after his young son and marry a Filipino teenager whom he met when she was six months pregnant with another man's child. Two years later the child died in the Nichols's home, found by his mother suffocated, with his head inside a plastic bag. Though the police felt that some questions had been left unanswered they declared the death an accident.

After Nichols left the army, McVeigh withdrew again into solitude, rarely going out at weekends, never dating women. He volunteered for everything that was going, never shirked a duty, was always on time. His obsessive dedication to soldiering won him the the admiration of his superiors and in the autumn of 1990 he was promoted to sergeant. Few noticed that he dedicated the little spare time he had to reading gun literature and Soldier of Fortune, a gung-ho right-wing magazine that glorifies the exploits, real and imagined, of mercenaries playing Rambo in defence of freedom in far-flung corners of the world. Invariably the first-person narrators of Soldier of Fortune yarns portray themselves as patriots frustrated at every turn by a crushingly liberal American establishment.

In January 1991 McVeigh went to war in the Persian Gulf. The mechanised battalion in which he served was one of the few to see action during the few hours of resistance that Saddam Hussein's troops put up on the ground. McVeigh, firing a cannon from his armoured carrier, made a direct hit at 500 yards against an Iraqi military vehicle. The army showered him with medals and he returned home at the end of March hopeful that he would achieve every Soldier of Fortune reader's dream: to pass the extraordinarily rigorous tests required for admittance to the army's elite Special Forces unit, the Green Berets. He failed, according to an army spokesman, because he injured himself on a march during the test and felt physically unable to make the grade.

McVeigh was crushed. That was the moment, prosecutors in the trial are expected to argue, when his descent into the abyss began. He took to reading the literature of the lunatic right and found himself particularly captivated by the Turner Diaries, a novel described by the FBI as the bible of America's ultra-reactionary paramilitaries. Written in 1978 by William Pierce, a member of the neo-fascist National Alliance party, the book tells the story of an underground cell called The Organisation that rises up against the US government, otherwise described as "the Jewish-liberal-democratic- equalitarian plague", after the passing of a law called the Cohen Act that makes gun-ownership illegal. The Organisation unleashes a campaign of bombings, sabotage and assassination culminating in the wholesale slaughter of blacks and Jews and the hanging of tens of thousands of white "liberals" - politicians, journalists, bureaucrats - sympathetic to blacks and Jews. The apotheosis comes when the government is overthrown and an all-Aryan regime installed in its place. Pierce later wrote that his novel might prove "too strong a dish" for any reader who comes to it cold and suggested that, by way of preliminary reading, it might be of value to turn to the pages of Mein Kampf.

Researchers and government agents who have investigated the American far right say that they are constantly coming across references to the Turner Diaries. The novel is to the militias as Marx was to Lenin. Few go beyond the rhetoric but some have sought to imitate Pierce's art in life. One such was Richard Snell, himself an admirer of Hitler; another was the bandit group called The Order which, in the early Eighties, carried out the assassination of a Jewish radio talk-show host in Denver, Colorado. McVeigh may have gone further than anyone before him in turning Pierce's wildest fantasies into reality.

Mcveigh Left the army early in 1992 and returned home to Pendleton where he resumed security work and immersed himself ever deeper in far- right ideology. He devoured his Soldier of Fortune magazines, imagining the glories that might have been his had he made it into the Green Berets; he pored over Guns and Ammo, a magazine that savours the capabilities of every describable weapon and righteously denounces any government attempt to curtail gun-owners' rights; he subscribed to Spotlight, an anti-Semitic newsletter, and to Patriot Report, a newsletter of the Christian far right; and he read pamphlets with titles like Operation Vampire Killer 2000 that warned of the looming menace of "one-world government".

All this helped him stumble towards the paranoid worldview that characterises the American far right. In a letter to a local newspaper, the Lockport Union-Sun and Journal, in February 1992 he tried to articulate his evolving political philosophy. The politicians in Washington were serving only themselves, the American Dream was fading, just as communism had failed so would democracy. "No one is seeing the big picture... AMERICA IS IN DECLINE," he wrote, concluding: "Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn't come to that! But it might."

McVeigh's father, with whom he was living, disapproved of these rantings, perhaps sensing that it was his son who was in decline, not America. In search of similarly tormented souls he left Pendleton and moved in with his old friend Terry Nichols. Together they started imagining themselves as reincarnations of the revolutionary patriots who rose up with George Washington against the tyranny of the British crown. Now the tyrants were in Washington, partners in a conspiracy with the other Western powers to hand over national sovereignty to the United Nations. The first and surest sign of the conspiracy was provided in 1994 when President Clinton and Congress passed the Brady Bill, removing the right of citizens to go to their local gun shop and buy themselves an automatic weapon. The gun for McVeigh was the symbol of his freedom, his manhood, his very American-ness. No clause in the US constitution did McVeigh hold more dear than the Second Amendment, which reads: "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." Never mind that the constitution framers never imagined the Gatling gun, much less the AK-47, in the eyes of McVeigh the nation's most sacred principles were being betrayed. And as a quote from Thomas Jefferson printed on his favourite T-shirt read: "The tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

Now was the time, therefore, for all good men and true to stand up and be counted. Now was the time to revive the spirit of the freedom fighters of old, to take up arms against the liberal onslaught. Thus it was that in 1994 America's very own fundamentalist militia movement sprang to life, starting with the Militia of Montana and extending rapidly to the Texas State Militia, the Arizona Militia, the Michigan Militia and dozens more loose, scattered groupings the length and breadth of rural America numbering thousands of people, almost all of them white males. McVeigh began moving in this milieu in 1994 when he started travelling the gun-show circuit, moving between Michigan and Arizona, buying and selling guns, playing soldiers, talking of war.

The conversation with his new friends came back again and again to Waco, site of the siege by federal agents of David Koresh and his Branch Davidian cult, mystic forebears of the militias who shared their passion for guns. The siege ended with an attack by agents of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) which culminated in an inferno in which 80 members of the cult died. The events of that fateful day burn in the memory of every single militia member. And ever since, the ATF, the government body charged with enforcing gun legislation, has come to be identified by the militias as the evil face - "the jackbooted stormtroopers" in militia lore - of a tyrannical government bent on taking away the God- given rights of all true, freedom-loving American patriots. And what was the date of the Waco attack? It was 19 March 1993, the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington in 1775, when the first shots were fired in the American Revolution, and two years to the day before the bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City.

Stephen Jones, McVeigh's lawyer, will seek to make the connection with Richard Snell but the prosecutors in the trial, armed with evidence that McVeigh personally witnessed a part of the Waco siege and raged with indignation at the ATF after its tragic conclusion, will argue that the day he chose for the bombing was charged with symbolism. They will note, too, that the Murrah building housed various government offices including the Oklahoma headquarters of the ATF and that McVeigh carried out his gunpowder plot with painstakingly premeditated, cold-blooded calculation.

Michael Fortier, also a former army man who moved in militia circles, will testify that his friend McVeigh set off the bomb in retaliation for the Waco attack and because he believed that, like the Battle of Lexington, it might prove the catalyst that sparked the revolution. In a statement to the FBI, Fortier said, "Tim wanted to wake up America to the danger of our federal government and their intrusion on our rights. He was hoping to accomplish some type of general uprising."

On 9 February 1997, McVeigh's mother was committed into a mental hospital by the Florida medical authorities after she exhibited "psychotic behaviour" and was ruled to be a danger to herself and to others. Remarkably, no one has ventured the suggestion that her son is criminally insane and, as such, incompetent to stand trial. Neither, for that matter, has anyone proposed that he be treated as a political prisoner. If he is not a lunatic and if no one is seriously entertaining the notion that he was driven by a legitimate political agenda then what does this tell us about him, if he is guilty, and about the militia swamp from which he arose? It tells us that there are a great many pathetic, angry people in America. The McVeighs, the Snells, the Atlanta Olympic bombers, the militias are white American males who through misfortune or incompetence have failed to do what white American males are under enormous social pressure to do: to live up to the myths of the American dream, to reap the blessings of the Land of Opportunity, to succeed by making money and raising a happy family. They have buckled under the strain of becoming winners in a society that despises losers. But it is too crushing to accept that the blame lies within so they seek to dignify their resentment and self-loathing with a fantasy they choose to imbue with a half-baked political rationale. These weak men, they band together, seeking the solidarity of other tormented souls, they arm themselves with guns and they pretend they must stand together against the forces of evil that threaten the American Way of Life.

For most, such fancies serve the useful purpose of making them feel better about themselves; the cartoon warrior games they play in the militias function as a harmless exercise in group therapy. Some, a tiny minority, take the logic of the game - much as they take the fiction of the Turner Diaries - to its logical, deranged, real-life conclusion. For a series of reasons that might include an unhappy childhood, a parental divorce, disappointed expectations at work, pent-up sexual frustration but, ultimately, must remain a mystery, they have to lash out. They set off explosions but they make no demands. For they have no objectives. Terror is not an instrument of political persuasion, it is a means of venting spleen.

And once they have vented it, once they have uncoiled their rage, a chilling internal order, however fleetingly, is restored. Such, if he is guilty, would seem to be the case with McVeigh. Mark Gibson, the assistant district attorney at Noble County, Oklahoma, described to the Washington Post the emotions he felt on first seeing the thin, stony-faced young man in court on 21 April 1995, just after he had been identified as the prime suspect. "Emotions don't come into play. Right and wrong don't come into play... His mission was accomplished. His mood was so level it was unnatural. I looked at him and realised I felt no repulsion or fear. It was like there was an absence of feeling. He exuded nothing."

Ever since, according to the accounts of his lawyer, prison officials and two journalists who have interviewed him, he has continued to exude nothing - no emotion, no remorse, no self-justifying rage. Perhaps, like the narrator and hero of the Turner Diaries, Earl Turner, he has rationalised the carnage. In the fictional bombing, which eerily matches in almost every essential detail the Oklahoma bombing, The Organisation sets off a truck bomb at FBI headquarters, killing 700 people. "All day yesterday and most of today we watched the TV coverage of rescue crews bringing the dead and injured out of the building," Earl Turner says. "It is a heavy burden of responsibility to bear... But there is no way we can destroy the System without hurting many thousands of innocent people - no way. It is a cancer too deeply rooted in our flesh... We have gone over this before, and we are all completely convinced that what we did is justified."

If the prosecution is correct and McVeigh did plant the Oklahoma bomb, then he himself would have "gone over this before", anticipated the grim scenes over and over in his head, convinced himself that he would do what he was going to do for love of a higher cause. If he did it, then, like a good soldier, he did what he had to do. He descended into hell and now he is at peace.