CRM Journal

Book Review

The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory

By Edward T. Linenthal. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001; ix + 304 pp., photographs, drawings, notes, index; paper $16.95.


The Unfinished Bombing cover

Landscape, place, and memory can powerfully influence our understanding of historical reality. Historians have become fascinated with the interplay of these three forces and have analyzed the ways that Americans confront their past and shape their future beliefs or understandings. By examining, for example, battlefield memorialization, memorial statuary, and memorial landscapes, historians have explored the dynamic process of protest as individuals and groups struggle over the ownership and meaning of these special places over time. Usually, the memorial moments under consideration are positioned securely in times past. Edward Linenthal's The Unfinished Bombing plunges readers into the challenges associated with the memorial process related to a very recent event: the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Linenthal's study begins with the bombing of the Murrah building on April 19, 1995, and concludes with the memorial's dedication in 2000. What intrigued him was not only the story of the Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation, but also the ways in which the bombing impacted the Nation's imagination. It became a canvas upon which citizens defined as well as contemplated the community's and the Nation's past, present, and future.

What was larger than the bombing itself, Linenthal argues, was the manner in which a number of trends within the larger world of memorialization converged. Memorialization has long been a way for groups to stake out space and make an imprint upon an area's cultural and political consciousness. Usually a significant period of time will elapse before the memorialization process begins. What was striking about Oklahoma City was that it seemed to begin in a heartbeat, with grieving, remembering, and sanctifying all entangled.

As a result, the memorial process became more democratic as a range of individuals, however far removed from the event or people involved, participated in acts of remembrance. Linenthal suggests that the interest in memorializing the bombing represented a shift in the way American culture accommodates sites of violence. Instead of following more common responses to such sites—modest remembrance or obliteration—the Oklahoma City bombing generated an intense desire to ensure that the event would not be forgotten. The outcome, he concludes, was a memorial process that drew on past efforts and took on a particular character based on family members' and survivors' desires for remembering the victims.

Linenthal identifies four primary narratives that emerged to interpret the Oklahoma City bombing. The "progressive narrative" stressed the possibility of rebuilding and renewal as the community and the Nation overcame the challenges posed by the tragedy. The "redemptive narrative" drew on religion and concentrated on the opportunity for good to triumph over evil. The "toxic narrative" reflected the anger and bitterness over lives lost, expectations shattered, and physical and emotional injuries. The fourth narrative that Linenthal suggests, "patriotic sacrifice," revolved around the decision to place the Oklahoma site among the memorials administered by the National Park Service. This is Linenthal at his best, identifying and exploring the many stories and contested visions about an event.

The heart of Linenthal's study is his analysis of the images and symbols that surfaced to describe the impact of the bombing and its aftereffects, and the way in which the memorial process took shape and played out. He considers how the Nation confronts an act of violence and the challenges associated with the needs of families and survivors, the creation of a national bereaved community, and conflicting notions of memorialization.

Linenthal believes that the impact of the Oklahoma City bombing continues. In his conclusion, he poses the following questions: "Will the prominence of the Oklahoma City bombing be ensured by its location in the nation's official memory? Will it become an enduring part of the national landscape, a site as important as Monticello, Gettysburg, or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial? Will a future terrorist act that inflicts even more death consign Oklahoma City to a less prestigious location on the landscape of violence? Or might such an act increase its prestige as the first event in a continuing body count of domestic terrorism?" These questions remain unanswered. The Unfinished Bombing appeared as the Nation reeled from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the crash in Pennsylvania. These events may well have deflected attention from the singularity of the Oklahoma City bombing. Our lack of distance from the events clouds our ability to place them in perspective.

This is an engaging book that immerses readers in the story, feeling the emotions generated by the event as well as Linenthal's own wariness about many of the attempts of professionals to impose "mental health" on the families and survivors. Here is a framework for understanding the dynamics of such aftereffects and the choices available in developing appropriate memorialization strategies. However, the study suffers from too little contextualization of the memorial process and the site's association with political terrorism rather than national sacrifice. Linenthal alludes to these issues but they remain undeveloped. Nonetheless, this study will be intriguing to anyone involved with developing, administering, and interpreting memorial sites.

Patricia Mooney-Melvin
Loyola University, Chicago