Having found myself in Oklahoma City with some time before my flight home, I visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial for the first time. This sprawling complex encompasses the area of and around the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that was bombed by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in April 1995. Upon initially entering the museum building I found it much like any other newer historical museum in the USA. Upon paying the entry fee one is transported on an elevator to floor 3 where you can look at several photos and interactive exhibits at your leisure.
At the end of the large room one reaches a podium manned by a friendly usher who proudly talks about a detailed model of the area. Then one proceeds through automatic doors into a closed, dim room. In the room stands a wooden conference table with a microphone and tape recorder set against a long wall. In moments a recording, an actual tape of a meeting in a building adjoining the Murrah Building on that morning in April 1995 begins to play. This is a tape documenting a routine water use hearing, but at approximately two minutes in a huge explosion sounds on the tape and the already dim lights in the room start to flicker. The explosion on the tape lasts for about 30 seconds but seems to go on forever as your guts wrench and a sickening feeling grips the back of your throat. As it recedes the wall behind the table lights up with pictures of those who died in this bombing.
One is left to contemplate their smiling faces as the sound and then the images themselves die away and fade to black and one is led to another set of rooms. My chest tightened as I viewed exhibit after exhibit of pictures and actual pieces of the damage and debris of that day. In one, perhaps the most horrible one, a small child's pink tennis shoe sits on a platform behind glass with the name and picture of a toddler killed in the bombing. This innocent was wearing that shoe on that sad day. On an adjoining wall a group photo of about 25 small toddlers smiling while on an outing that occurred the day before the bombing looks down. Eighty percent of those pictured were to die that day.
After many more exhibits one is ushered into a small room packed with shelves and pictures holding the picture of and a keepsake belonging to each victim. Precious Moments figurines, rosaries, Bibles, treasured sports souvenirs pack a room remembering the lost. After leaving the inside of the museum one proceeds out towards the reflecting pool and a vast field of sculptures representing empty chairs, one for each of the 168 victims; occupying the area where the federal building itself once stood. All is silent as the still morning sun silhouettes the empty chairs and the water reflects large black columns with one reading "9:01" and the other "9:03". The wind is silent and time seems to stop here.
A stone walkway leads to a large and beautiful green Survivors Tree shading a small circular pavilion with the words "The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us." A defiant deceleration of the American spirit to enemies both foreign and domestic. Proceeding up a set of stone stairs one comes to a wall of the Journal Record Building that faces the memorial. On it someone from Rescue Team 5 wrote "04-19-95. We search for the truth. We seek justice. The courts require it. The victims cry for it. And God demands it."
It was here that the tears finally filled my eyes. For here in a memorial to those lost to a supreme act of cowardice and evil was the essence of courage and love. This is the great creed of those who strap on a badge and gun, those who put on a fire helmet or stash an EMT bag. The great burden and promise of those who give their lives to run into places where everyone else is fighting to get out.
We remember those who give the ultimate sacrifice by surrendering their lives for their neighbor, but we must not forget to honor those who give a small piece of themselves every day in the embodiment of this creed and promise. Their sacrifice is still ultimate, only it is offered up in small pieces through the years. For this I am profoundly and unspeakably grateful.
After long moments under that tree I said a small prayer for those who died and those who live; for those who serve and sacrifice and pay the price for our peace, security, and freedom. My tongue was silent and my head bowed low as I walked away, past the empty chairs, past the images of lost children, past the destruction and hope and pain and life that goes on; for this is hallowed and haunted ground. Hallowed and haunted like few other places in the United States, (only Ground Zero in New York and the battlefield at Gettysburg come to mind in comparison.) On a hot morning in 2009, two days before Independence Day; I can think of no more sobering, more fitting, or more meaningful place to be.
To those who died, may their memory be eternal. To those of us who are left, a lesson; hate and intolerance, violence and bigotry lead only to death. Death of the innocent and death of the soul, both individually and collectively as a nation. May we channel our hard won freedom into something good and living like the Survivor's Tree, and again both individually and collectively, may God have mercy on our souls.
Christopher Huckabay is an Orthodox Christian living in Little Rock, Arkansas.