Two years ago next month, I got on a plane, flew to Salt Lake City, and drove to a truck stop on the outskirts of town so I could interview a man who’d tried to bomb a federal building.
The night before, I was sitting at my family’s round dining room table, having dinner with my parents, who were asking what I was going to Utah to report on.
“Interviewing a guy who tried to bomb a building,” I said, between bites of food. They both stopped eating, and looked at me with eyes wide enough for me to realize how crazy what I’d just said was. I told them I was bringing the producer on the Bundyville podcast, Ryan Haas. That didn’t make them feel better. I hadn’t been afraid to go talk to the guy, and it struck me how my parents’ reaction also didn’t make me fearful. I knew it had to be done.
There have a been a few moments in the past few years I’ve had to pause to consider whether or not the self-assigned beat of domestic terrorism I’ve given myself was crazy to continue pursuing. (A few of you may know: I was a music journalist for awhile. This is to say: my life used to be a hell of a lot more fun.) Every time I assessed the danger, and decided to cover things anyway, I had concluded it was because I was providing a necessary service to the American public. To my country. To my community. To my family and my friends and to people I’ll never know.
So, I went to Utah. I had heard about a bombing that had happened in a Nevada town on the border of the two states, and I had a hunch it was related to the Patriot Movement I’d been reporting on. No federal officials were talking about the Nevada explosion, so I figured I needed someone on the other side of things to explain the mentality and ideology that pushes someone to that point. Who better to tell me that than another bomber? (You can hear the interview Ryan and I conducted with that man in Season 2, Episode 2 of Bundyville, or read my extensive story on his actions.)
We learned a lot about that man’s own mentality, of course, but we learned something else, too. When we asked him what would occur if Trump was impeached, or removed from office somehow, he replied simply: “all bets are off.”
All bets are off.
Those four words alone have kept me on the domestic terrorism beat. Echoing in my head all the time. All bets are off. All bets are off. They pushed me to understand the bombing in Nevada more, how it tied to the greater Patriot movement, to understand the movement’s capacity for violence. All bets are off. They were a drumbeat to the reporting, a clock ticking down when I was facing down a situation where I knew my presence would not be welcomed. All bets are off.
When I dug deeply into the Boogaloo, which exists only to create chaos, disorder and bloodshed, I was thinking all bets are off. All bets are off.
All bets are off. All bets are off. I dug into the history and mind of Timothy McVeigh, who murdered 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995 because he believed in the very same conspiracies the people I report on — 25 years later — still spout. His ideas, since 2016, have been coming out of the Oval Office.
One rainy Saturday afternoon, when the world was taking its children to soccer games, or enjoying time with their friends, or doing whatever enjoyable things people do who are not me, I dug into a trove of public records I’d obtained from a small county in Arizona. (Bundyville spoiler incoming)
I was scrolling along, looking at photographs of what looked like nonsense when all of a sudden — holy shit — everything I had thought about that bombing in Nevada clicked. It was a suicide bombing. A suicide bombing in the name of the Patriot ideology. I’d felt like I’d been hit by a car.
Later on that evening, I went to an arcade for adults with some friends, and my husband kept asking “are you okay?” as the night went on. And I said yeah, of course I’m okay. I’m okay! Don’t worry! But all I could think about was the notes I’d found. And how this odd situation is what happens when you are a freelance journalist with no editor to call, and you discover something huge. You drink a Coke and play Skee-Ball, and you try to figure out how to smile despite the abyss you’ve just looked into.
I am insanely proud of Bundyville, and all the work I’ve done. But I have to confess to you: I thought that when the world heard the news of a white suicide bomber — a man whose beliefs were associated with the Christian-dominated Patriot movement — that maybe, for once, the narrative about who is and isn’t a terrorist in this country would shift. I was wrong. So naive.
What happened yesterday in Washington DC was something I knew could happen. There in Utah, two years ago, a man said it into the microphone Ryan was holding. I tried to get the world to notice; at one point, we even pondered if we could put out the podcast sooner, given what this man had told us. It wasn’t a secret. It wasn’t being whispered in dark corners. It was happening out in the open. A seeping, open wound.
Last year, my good friend Sharma Shields wrote a book that everyone should read, a beautiful, chilling fictional masterpiece called The Cassandra. (If you don’t trust me, trust Margaret Atwood) Sharma pulls off something that, frankly, only Sharma can pull off: a retelling of the classic Cassandra myth — the story of the woman who warns of impending danger, but no one listens — set at the Hanford Site in the 1940s as the people there manufactured the plutonium that would go inside Fat Man.
I couldn’t help but feel kinship with Mildred, Sharma’s main character, as I devoured the book. All bets are off. It hollows out the center of you when you scream and no one seems to hear it.
Yesterday, I woke up and called my best friend and we did a workout over Zoom. I drank a cup of coffee, and then a coup attempt took place in Washington DC. I watched it all day. As a reporter, it’s typically satisfying when your work produces results: a law gets changed, an injustice gets exposed. Recently, the name of a street in Spokane — which was named for a genocidal maniac — was changed, and I felt glad maybe I’d had some role in the matter.
But this was the opposite feeling. I didn’t eat. I didn’t get up. I just scrolled, tried to breathe, knowing that the sickness had reached the nation’s heart center. My eyes hurt from yesterday, when it all became too much and finally, I just broke down. Could I have done anything more?
All day long I saw people comparing what was happening to the Malheur Standoff, in Oregon (the details of which I’ll assume you know, if you’re here reading this newsletter). And yeah, I agree with that, to some extent.
But what I was thinking about was the way national media outlets scoffed at the presence of armed men in a remote wildlife refuge out here in Oregon. It was a novelty story. A fringe story. Did it really matter? I thought of all the conversations I had with editors in New York and DC, who couldn’t understand why this was a story everyone needed to care about.
When the Bundys led that takeover in my state, it was a takeover of a capitol of sorts, too. A takeover of public lands is a takeover of a symbol of history, a place that acknowledges our respect for the ancients, a symbol of everything that came before and everything that is yet to come. Hostility toward the very earth itself, I think, should warrant the ire of all Americans.
As the Malheur takeover played out, people found a way to scoff, to tell journalists like me to not give them so much attention.
Yesterday, I didn’t hear a lot of laughter coming out of the West, but I did see a lot of mourning. Fear. We’ve been seeing this happen out here, on public lands, violent protests at state capitol buildings, police attacking peaceful protesters in the streets of our cities. I wonder why our patriotism so duplicative.
A bomb goes off in Oklahoma City, but we forget. A conspiracy theory becomes mainstream, but we ignore it. A woman stands before a television camera and says facts are not whole, that there are alternatives to truth, but we somehow find a way to go on with our lives.
A man tells a pair of reporters that all bets are off. No one hears it.