Toobin can be a captivating writer; he is one of the greats at uncovering the backstories of a variety of criminals and noteworthy trials: OJ Simpson, Patty Hearst, Donald Trump, the Gore vs. Bush election, Bill Clinton, and the make-up of the Supreme Court.
Which is why it is surprising that he missed the mark with this book. No question that Timothy McVeigh was one of America’s most successful and by Toobin’s accounting, one of its first domestic terrorists. On April 19, 1995 he drove a truck bomb to the front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and blew it up, killing 168 people including 19 children in the building’s daycare facility.
He was motivated by rightwing radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and the conspiracy theories that circulated amongst politicians. Shock jocks and their supporters pedaled lies about government overreach and suggested in rather stark terms that only patriots and other defenders of the second amendment could save the nation. Toobin draws a direct and clear line from McVeigh to the treasonous revolutionaries that stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Men and women who attacked the Capitol were also spurred forward by a new generation of right-wing conspiracists and a new generation of communication, social media, but recycled the same dogmas that led to McVeigh.
It is an important arrow pointing at how dangerously thin the line is between election deniers, second amendment fanatics, Newtown skeptics (Alex Jones acolytes) and their proclivity toward violence.
But Toobin makes two mistakes. The first is subtle. He implies that McVeigh was the first right-winger of his ilk, overlooking McCarthyism, Silver Shirts, American Nazis, the KKK, and White Supremacists some of whom have been around since colonists considered Native Americans subhumans. The line leading to January 6 is twisty, but continuous, and a lot longer than Toobin is willing to admit. In a single toss away line he points to the Tulsa Race massacre of 1921 as having killed as many as died in Oklahoma.
The first half of the book is a thorough biography of Timothy McVeigh from birth to bombing with thorough detailing of the years, months, days, and minutes leading up to the bombing. Then, because he cannot resist describing courtroom proceedings, Toobin repeats everything we have already learned as it was presented by prosecuting and defending attorneys. One recounting, or half the book, would have been enough.