OKC 10 Years Later

What we being billed as the first-annual bedbug summit was convening in Rosemont, Ill., outside Chicago, on Sept. 21, 2010
Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBSNews.com and CBS News.

It's hard to remember now what life was like in America on April 19, 1995, at 9:01 a.m. CDT.

Osama bin Laden was in the Sudan, refining the structure of the organization that would eventually become al Qaeda. George W. Bush was in his first year as Governor of Texas. Saddam Hussein had weathered the first Iraq War and was back to building regal palaces in his own honor. President Bill Clinton hadn't yet met Monica Lewinsky.

The first attack on the World Trade Center, frightening as it was, had nonetheless proved a futile attempt to topple the Twin Towers. The deadly Branch Davidian siege at Waco - occurring exactly two years earlier - had seemed like a tragic anomaly: more a sad example of bureaucratic bungling than a sign of any deliberate indifference to life on the part of law enforcement. And few outside of the Army and anti-government circles had ever heard of Timothy James McVeigh or Terry Lynn Nichols.

We thought our cities were safe, that terrorism would never again reach our shores, much less deep into our heartland. We thought that we had matured enough as a society so that deep political anger and religious zealotry would no longer trigger mass violence, at least in this country.

Almost 50 years to the day after the end of the European theatre of World War II, and almost 20 years to the day after the U.S. withdrew from South Vietnam, our mind's eye saw no wars on our horizons, no body counts, no carnage in our streets. It was the last minute of an America we will never return to.

What happened one minute later, at 9:02 a.m., at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, blew apart the world we knew.

McVeigh's truck bomb, a rented lorry filled with homemade explosives, erupted with tremendous force and fire, tearing a huge, grisly chunk out of the massive building. Some estimates suggested that the superheated air of the blast traveled out of the truck and into the building at 7,000 miles per hour.

The attack killed 168 people, including 19 children, and wounded about 600 hundred more. People were killed working at their desks. People were killed waiting in line. Toddlers and babies were killed while they played at a daycare center.

People 40 miles away from the federal building felt the force of the blast that morning. Glass windows throughout downtown Oklahoma City shattered and crashed to the ground for many minutes after the explosion.

As the nine floors of the Murrah building crumbled and compressed down upon one another, innocent people were crushed like grapes. Rescue workers testified later about walking through rivers of bodily fluids amid the debris. It was worse than Beirut or Northern Ireland or Jerusalem. The unthinkable, the unimaginable, had happened here at home - for the first but not the last time.

It is unfortunate, but likely, that history will view the Oklahoma City bombing as a footnote to the tragedies that befell those at the Pentagon and in New York City six and a half years later.

Likely, because the Twin Towers that fell on September 11, 2001 were each 12 times higher than the Murrah building. Likely, because nearly twenty times more people died at the World Trade Center than in Oklahoma City. Likely, because those attacks on America in 2001 marked the start of a global war on terrorism - a war that may last for generations - while the bombing of April 19, 1995 represented the effective end of the "patriot" movement in the United States.

But if, by comparison to 9-11, the Oklahoma City bombing ends up relegated to an historical subplot, it won't just be a disservice to the survivors and the family members of victims. It will be a shame, our shame.

At the time of the blast, the Murrah building bombing was, by far, the biggest and worst crime in American history. At the time, it generated the biggest law enforcement investigation in the history of the world.

The scale of the carnage in Oklahoma City was also almost too much to bear. Indeed, when McVeigh's attorney lamely listed the names of the victims at the start of the federal trial in Denver in 1997, the litany seemed to go on forever - for minute after hushed minute inside the courtroom. You knew right then that McVeigh was doomed. And he was.

The enormity of the crime, the tragedy of loss, and our collective grief overwhelmed everything else that went on during that trial and every subsequent trial.

Those bombing trials are not likely to be equaled anytime soon. It is unlikely that there will ever be a similar trial for the villains of September 11, 2001, or perhaps for any future al Qaeda crimes, because the current crop of assassins seeks to die and go to paradise as they kill.

Ten years from now, even if we are hit again, the federal trials of McVeigh and Nichols trials still may rank as the most important in American history. Surely there is room in our future history books for two such colossal calamities occurring so closely to one another in time.

So how should we bear witness to the Oklahoma City bombing? How can we give it an appropriate context in the wake of the fall of the Twin Towers? How can we view its proper perspective in light of the greater evil we now know humans are capable of?

It depends upon who you ask, of course. For the family members of victims and the survivors of the blast, there is no need for context. There is only the shock and horror of the blast and its lingering effects, both seen and unseen, both real and imagined. I'm sure the family members of victims and survivors of September 11, 2001 feel the same way and I don't blame them.

As someone who was far away from both Oklahoma City and New York City on those horrific days, I look back at April 19, 1995 as the beginning of an interim period in the span of America's dance with terrorism, a period that ended on the morning of September 11, 2001.

I see the destruction of the Murrah building as a deadly stepping stone, an event that offered a new, sickening standard of horror that served as a mere preview of, a sinister appetizer for, what happened at the World Trade Center. I see McVeigh's bombing as an horrific event that raised the bar (or lowered the bar, depending upon how you look at it) on our tolerance for terror. The two deadly days are not linked, politically or religiously or otherwise, but our reaction to the latter necessarily was affected by our endurance of the former.

McVeigh's truck bomb jolted us back to the realization that our cities truly are vulnerable to terrorism. It jolted our politicians into some action - although, in retrospect, far too little of it. It generated heightened sensitivity toward victims of mass crime (and their political power). It racheted up security, and tension, at public places where people congregate.

There is no doubt that America was safer on September 10, 2001 than it was on April 19, 1995 thanks to the hard lessons learned in Oklahoma City. Safer, but sadly and clearly not safe enough.

There also is no doubt that we were better able to deal with the destruction of the World Trade Center thanks to the experience in Oklahoma City.

Rescue workers and officials of all stripes said after the Twin Towers fell that they had relied upon helpful and important strategies and tactics they had learned from the brave folks who waded through the rubble at the Murrah building. From the debris in Oklahoma City came a new level of courage and commitment and resolve that indisputably, in ways large and small, affected people great and common, on September 11, 2001.

In the ghastly scale of devastation, the Oklahoma City bombing pales by comparison with the terror attacks on New York and Washington. But there should be no comparison, because there should be no contest.

It should be enough to say that our collective reaction to 9-11-01 would have been far weaker and worse without the sad experience of 4-19-95. And that, above anything else, is the way I prefer to think of the events of April 19, 1995.

It is a way that ensures that those who died that day did not die in vain, and that those who survived have generated a legacy of hope and spirit that has made other sad lives more bearable in times of deep despair. And that's not a footnote in my book.

By Andrew Cohen