On Terror Anniversary, Time Again To Mourn

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
It's hard to believe that exactly 13 years have passed since Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols and perhaps "others unknown" orchestrated the destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

The time's passage means we are close to the day when our high schools will be filled with young men and young women who were not even alive on that awful spring day. They are members of the post-OKBomb generation.

At the time of the truck bombing, on April 19, 1995, the crime was the worst in American history - 168 people were killed and hundreds more wounded and scarred. Since then, of course, we have come to know mass criminality on a much larger scale. The terror attacks on America on September 11, 2001 were an order of magnitude more profound and deadly than was the homegrown terror that spurred McVeigh and Company into action.

But there are no zero-sum games when it comes to the heartbreak and the pain and the loss that comes from swift and sudden and terrible death. There is room enough in the heart and soul and mind of a country to grieve all of it, the famous and the undiscovered.

For the survivors and the family members of victims there is no "closure," no "moving on." What happened that day 13 years ago will stay with them until the day they die, and the memory of what happened in America's heartland on April 19, 1995 will stay with us as a nation until there is no more memory, or no more America.

Of all of the countless moments I have spent covering trials, one of the saddest and most profound came during the first week of the McVeigh trial, just one day after opening statements were offered by the attorneys.

It was Friday, April 25, 1997. McVeigh was on trial in federal court in Denver (the venue for the trials having been changed from Oklahoma City for obvious and legitimate reasons). It was in the afternoon, shortly before the end of what had already been a long and emotional week.

A woman named Helena Garrett was shown to the witness stand. Along with many other small children, her 16-month-old son, Tevin, had been killed by McVeigh's bomb. Here is her account, as contemporaneously reported by the legendary Jo Thomas of The New York Times:
"Mrs. Garrett herself took the stand next. She told the jury of watching rescue workers bringing out children who were dead and dying as she looked for her young son, Tevin, 16 months. One was Colton Smith, 2, who was laid on a bench by her knees and who was a friend of Tevin.

"'He was bleeding from his mouth,' Mrs. Garrett said, sobbing. 'I didn't leave Colton.' They had some white sheets, Mrs. Garrett said, and rescue workers were wrapping babies in them and putting them on the ground. 'Please don't lay our babies on the glass!' she remembered begging them. 'Please don't lay our babies on the glass! I didn't realize they were already dead. A man swept the glass for me.' Rescue workers did not find Tevin until Saturday, April 22, three days after the bombing. His mother next saw him at the funeral parlor. 'All I could see were his feet and hands,' she said. 'I kissed his feet and legs. I couldn't go up higher.'"
There wasn't, according to reports, a dry eye in the courtroom at that moment except for McVeigh, whose soldierly demeanor never faltered, and U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch, whose countenance during the entire trial bordered on the robotic. Lawyers were crying. Federal marshals were crying. Journalists were crying. Parents were crying. Jurors were crying. You knew at that moment that McVeigh would be convicted and sentenced to death. You knew, in other words, that you had just seen the sort of raw emotion that television cannot translate and that Hollywood cannot create.

Tevin Garrett might have been 15 years old today. He might have been a high school jock or a guitar player or a fan of the Oklahoma Sooners. He almost certainly would have been eating his mother out of house and home by now. But he is gone, along with 167 others who were at the Murrah building that day; along with thousands who were at the World Trade Center and on those planes on 9-11; along with the thousands more Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the ensuing wars, along with the victims of less grand but no less deadly conduct.

The empty chairs that mark the official memorial in Oklahoma City are a profound reminder not just of the loss of life on April 19, 1995 but of the premature loss of life since then. There are so many empty chairs, so many empty beds, so many empty and heartbroken people. Remember them always, if you can, but remember them especially on this day, exactly 13 years after the nation got its first taste of what homeland terror looked like.

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