The documentary A Noble Lie: Oklahoma City 1995 was released in December of 2011, the culmination of sixteen years of active resistance to the official story of the Oklahoma City bombing. The filmmakers dedicated two years of their lives to production, pouring every spare hour and spare dollar into making sure that the truth tellers’ story was told. If anything, A Noble Lie is a testament to the strength of the truth, the weakness of the lie, and the will of whatever forces govern this plane to see evil exposed. But that was nothing compared to the long years in the wilderness the truth seekers faced from day one. We were just privileged to tell their story. As for justice—well, that is an ideal we can strive for, and should. But the very fact that these atrocities occur tells us that justice is fickle, elusive, and pinned down perhaps only by whatever the next world holds for us.
And with that we note with honor the recent death of V.Z. Lawton, a survivor of the bombing and a man who resisted the herd impulse to ignore his own eyes and ears in the face of authority. V.Z., eighty-one years old, passed away on July 23, 2012, after succumbing to cancer. Few men can say that they have been truly tested. Fewer still can say that they prevailed. V.Z. did both many times, and cracked jokes in between.
V.Z. faced his mortality with a determination and hope that still shined from his eyes and with a lack of fear that defined his presence on this earth. He had confronted death before. On April 19, 1995, seventeen years ago, V.Z. was sitting at his desk in the office of Housing and Urban Development in the A.P. Murrah Federal Building when the structure began to shake, the lights went out, and something fell from the ceiling and struck him in the head, knocking him out cold. When he regained consciousness, he saw that the floor had collapsed to within inches of his desk. He stood over the stilled maelstrom below, half the building lie in ruins, crushed bodies beneath. He turned around and immediately went to the aid of his injured co-workers. He guided, carried, and led them down several flights of stairs and broke open a warped steel door with his shoulder. After getting checked out at the hospital, he began walking home. He picked glass out of his body for months.
He had been lucky, and he knew it. He lost dozens of friends and spent the next several weeks, like much of Oklahoma City, attending funerals. The bombing was blamed on Tim McVeigh; the tool of destruction was a truck bomb parked in the street. As this narrative acquired momentum from the FBI, V.Z. compared it to his own. He had been in the building. He felt the building shake. When the lights went out, he could still see because of the sunlight coming through the windows. The intact windows. That did not square with the official story. It had been several seconds between the building shaking, the lights going out and V.Z. being knocked out. Before the windows shattered. Of course the official story being correct and true, the first indication that hell was being unleashed upon the Murrah building should have been the windows shattering. The FBI was putting the cart before the horse. V.Z. now knew he was being lied to. And you don’t lie to V.Z. He could take the truth, as he proved time and time again.
Likewise, Oklahoma State Representative Charles Key began to heed the questions of his constituents who had similar questions. Key had lost his former secretary in the bombing, and her family made him promise to honor the loss of their loved one with the truth. As Charles Key began to make headlines with questions and evidence that pointed to a cover-up, V.Z. expressed a healthy skepticism of these notions, politicians being what they were. But as it became clear that the government at every level was sticking to an unreal hypothesis, V.Z. met with the upstart legislator. Rep. Key must have passed muster, for they agreed to join efforts, and the Oklahoma Bombing Investigation Committee (OKBIC) was born.
Also joining the OKBIC was local businessman Dale Phillips and retired Air Force Lt. Col. George Wallace. They believed in the system, and they wanted it to work. Much maligned by the local press and ignored by the national media, the OKBIC was supported by donations from concerned people around the globe. They hired private investigators to compile evidence and eyewitness testimony and lobbied the government at every level to look at the bombing in the light of the true facts. To little or no avail, they tried to prompt the system to fulfill its duty. But they recorded the true history of the bombing, so that it will not be lost when posterity, no longer invested in the cover-up, tells the tales of these days.
There are few people who can withstand the condemnation of authority, the censure of their peers, the mockery of the press and the promise of ease that comes with accepting an illusion. Disheartening is the complete moral failure of our appointed protectors in the face of atrocity. It’s demoralizing to realize that the world we thought we lived in—the world we want to live in—is actually a much darker place. And the bad guys seem to win, time and time again.
But the presence and efforts of the brave souls is the ideal we should strive for. Theirs is the hope that embodies our best instincts. If justice was not possible, they would have all been extinguished from this existence long ago.
After being foiled by the political machinery in Oklahoma and in congress, the OKBIC decided to record their findings in The Final Report of the Oklahoma Bombing Investigation Committee. It was published three weeks before 9/11, too late for its conclusions to avert disaster. V.Z. traveled to New York City with his wife Betty and our producer and narrator Chris Emery. They gained an audience with the “Jersey Widows,” those bereaved wives who almost single-handedly forced President George W. Bush to convene an investigative panel on 9/11. Although they were likewise deprived of justice, V.Z. was able to impart his experiences and wisdom to these initiates, and their shared stories of cover-up, lies, and official malfeasance rhymed with a precision that indicated a purpose and methodology that hides behinds the mask of chaos.
And as the survivors and rescue workers of 9/11 increasingly succumb to the ailments that plague their bodies, the realization comes home that we are being robbed of our first generation of truth seekers. When the filmmakers were in New York City to record and commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 in 2009, we interviewed first responder John Citara. Discarded by the government that was only too pleased to expose him to lethal toxins from Ground Zero, we are reminded that ultimately we are viewed as chattel by this government, especially when our voice or existence becomes inconvenient.
2012 has not been a kind year to the first generation of OKC truth seekers. On April 30th of this year, we lost Hoppy Heidelberg. Hoppy served on the federal grand jury that handed down indictments to Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols. After requesting the testimony of demolitions experts, the building’s architect, and the never-released security videotapes, he was dismissed without cause. The FBI had already been paying not-so-nice visits to Hoppy’s home because he was asking questions about quality of evidence being presented. Hoppy, perhaps hewn of that same strong oak, refused to back down. For his bravery, Hoppy was rewarded with armed intimidation, harassment, the loss of his business, and the fear of association that often accompanies those lone voices in the wilderness.
These men will not be honored by officialdom, because officialdom was found lacking where they showed their strength. The hypocrisy would be too much to bear. But we can gain inspiration from their actions and attitudes. They refused to back down in the face of a lie, no matter the consequences. Should we all be so fortunate as to pass this test with our honor intact.
And being true friends to these heroes, we honor them in passing. Thank you, V.Z. Your bravery and integrity shaped history. Your charm and humor changed encouraged me and every other person fortunate enough to seek your wisdom. And if we cannot expect justice, we can record the deeds of these men so present and future heroes may know they are never alone, and despite the quibbling of knaves, fidelity to the truth has much greater rewards.
Holland Vandennieuwenhof is a writer and producer for Free Mind Films. He also hosts a weekly radio talk show broadcast on 19 FM and AM stations, The Free Mind Report. He resides in Oklahoma City.