‘An American Bombing’

‘An American Bombing’

Jewish filmmaker explores the root causes of the Oklahoma City explosion

Kathy Sanders, who lost two grandchildren in the bombing, and Daniel Coss, the Oklahoma City police officer who found their bodies, stand near the bomb site. (Marc Levin)
Kathy Sanders, who lost two grandchildren in the bombing, and Daniel Coss, the Oklahoma City police officer who found their bodies, stand near the bomb site. (Marc Levin)

Before I ask Marc Levin about his new HBO documentary, “An American Bombing: The Road to April 19,” I sing the praises of one of his earlier works, “Schmatta: From Rags to Riches to Rags.”

“Schmatta” was about the decline of the American garment business and very personal for me, I told him. My father was one of the casualties, a proud member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union — until he found himself jobless, when his company moved out of the area to the union-less South and eventually to Asia.

Mr. Levin appreciates the compliment, but at first seems confused when I suggest that “Schmatta,” which was out in 2010, was a precursor of “American Bombing,” about the Oklahoma City explosion that took down the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people, including 19 children.

Until I explain.

“Schmatta,” for me, was the story of American greed. It describes how once family-owned business were sold to conglomerates (usually to pay off inheritance taxes), the industry’s emphasis changed from people to profits and share prices. If you can import fabric for five cents a yard cheaper with a new supplier than with your current one, your 30- or 40-year relationship with that company, which also is just one building over, doesn’t matter. From there, it’s only baby steps to first move production south and then entirely overseas.

Mr. Levin agrees with my analogy almost immediately.

Marc Levin

“I hadn’t thought of that connection myself, but quite honestly you put your finger on something we made an extra effort to include in ‘American Bombing,’ and that is some of this alienation, some of this rage, some of these grievances are legitimate,” he told me during a Zoom interview.

In the film, Mr. Levin points to Jimmy Carter’s order to embargo wheat shipments to Russia as punishment for its invasion of Afghanistan as the first flashpoint. Many farmers who’d been encouraged to plant from fence to fence suddenly found themselves heavily in debt and forced off their properties.

“We start with the farm crisis in the heartland, and that spreads to manufacturing, and then, obviously, to where we are today, with the incredible economic inequality. That’s the soil for extremism and for demagogues to take advantage of these legitimate grievances and anger, and unfortunately direct them in these violent directions.”

But as the film notes, it wasn’t just the loss of jobs that fueled discontent.

During the late 1980s and early ’90s, rightwing talk radio flourished, spreading its lies, and the evangelical right became a political force. (The late Ed McAteer, head of the Religious Roundtable and the man most responsible for bringing fundamentalists into the Republican Party, was the subject of another Levin film, “An American Zealot.”) Also, a significant number of soldiers, like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, returned from war zones with PTSD.

And as a final ingredient in this volatile mix, at Ruby Ridge and Waco, federal law enforcement engaged rightwing groups in armed combat.

Marc Levin, producer Daphne Pinkerson, Katie Couric, and veteran war correspondent Mike Boettcher confer on the film. (Michael Buchanan)

It seemed an explosion was inevitable.

“American Bombing” does more than retell the story of what happened, it revisits some of the people who lived through the explosion, lost family members, whose lives were devastated, and offers interviews with a former extremist, and reporters who covered the event.

In fact, it is in part through another reporter, Katie Couric, that the film came about. Ms. Couric was in conversation with Nancy Abraham, HBO’s executive vice president of documentaries, about doing films on stories she’d covered during her career. One of them was Oklahoma City. Ms. Abraham suggested she speak to Mr. Levin, who directed a Bill Moyers special on the subject almost three decades ago.

Mr. Levin told me had three goals for the film. “The first was to retell the story to a new generation, because when we first started, the executives at HBO were saying, ‘You know, my kids go to Ivy League schools. And I asked them what do you know about the Oklahoma City bombing, and they just looked at me like, what’s that?’”

His second goal was to provide context, showing that the bombing wasn’t an isolated event but a result of a confluence of events dating back more than a decade. “In the popular imagination and in so much of the media, McVeigh was portrayed as a lone bomber, kind of a crazed ex-veteran,” he said. But his choice of target and date suggest otherwise. The Murrah building had been targeted by a previous group, the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. And April 19 was the anniversary of Waco.

And Mr. Levin’s final goal was to “show the humanity, the resilience, and the compassion” of survivors. “We’ve got to understand how all this happened, so that we can begin to figure out how not to repeat that down the road,” he said. “As President Clinton says in the film, these [violent] ideas that seemed so strange back in ’95 and were so universally condemned, that ideology has somehow gone mainstream.”

Marc Levin interviews President Bill Clinton. (Daniel Levesque)

One of the survivors put it another way: “Not too many years from now, when I tell someone I lost my grandchildren in the bombing, they’re going to say, ‘which one?’”

Mr. Levin was born in New York City and grew up in Elizabeth and Maplewood in a largely secular family. “What I remember from Hebrew school is being told to shut up over and over,” he said. My parents were not religious, but my grandfather, my father’s father, Herman Levinstein, was the real Jewish influence in my life.

“He was the president of the East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn and got involved in the Reconstructionist movement. Mordecai Kaplan was at my bar mitzvah. He was one of the great thinkers of modern Judaism.

“Because of my grandfather, I prepared for my bar mitzvah by commuting into Manhattan to the Reconstructionist Synagogue on the Upper West Side.”

His bar mitzvah was on February 7, 1964, and all his friends were invited. They showed up — but they mysteriously disappeared from the synagogue before he read his haftarah. Levin later discovered that his bar mitzvah coincided with the Beatles arriving in the U.S., and his buddies left for the Plaza Hotel to welcome them.

He went to Israel in 1973 on a work assignment, as cinematographer on a film that was not released. “I was filming in May 1973 only feet away from the reviewing stand of the parade” that was celebrating Israel’s 25th anniversary. “There was Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, David Ben-Gurion, the founding fathers and mothers of Israel.”

The experience connected him with his Judaism, a return growing stronger today.

“My grandchildren are going to a public day care that is run out of the Chabad on 23rd Street,” he said. “And just yesterday when I came home, my grandchildren were singing “Mah Nishtanah.” Every public school is allowed a second language, and because it’s run out of Chabad, the second language is Hebrew. Also, because Shabbat begins tonight, they want to light candles. So I feel the spirit of my grandparents coming back through my grandchildren returning me to some of the rituals.”

“American Bombing: The Road to April 19,” by HBO Documentary Films, is streaming on HBO and Max now.

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