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Jon Ronson’s The Debutante and the myth of the “lone wolf” terrorist

This Audible podcast series delves into the white-supremacist world of Timothy McVeigh and asks: could the Oklahoma City bombing have been prevented?

By Anna Leszkiewicz

On 19 April 1995, a truck bomb exploded outside a federal government building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 children. It is still the deadliest domestic terror attack in US history. It was carried out by the white supremacist Timothy McVeigh, who claimed to be avenging the deaths at the Waco siege in Texas exactly two years earlier, in which a confrontation between a religious sect called the Branch Davidians and the FBI ended in the deaths of four federal agents and 82 cult members. McVeigh is often called a “lone wolf” terrorist – but did he really act alone?

The Debutante, a new Audible series from Jon Ronson, looks to one individual to answer this question: Carol Howe. Howe was a beautiful young woman from Tulsa, adopted into a wealthy family at birth, and a former debutante (though by all accounts, a reluctant one – Ronson admits he just couldn’t resist taking that detail for his title). Rebellious, angry, unhappy, Howe began phoning a hotline called “Dial-A-Racist”, had an enormous swastika tattooed on her arm, and fell in with a hard-right, white-supremacist group called the White Aryan Resistance (it attracted members for whom the Ku Klux Klan was not extreme enough) and a white-separatist cult known only as “The Order”.

So far, so racist. Unambiguously so, you might think. But at some point, Howe supposedly turned informant on those in her orbit – including individuals who, some say, were with McVeigh in the lead-up to the bombing.

Ronson asks if Howe was a true informant, and if, were she taken seriously, the bombing might have been stopped. With his trademark combination of curiosity and wit, he reveals an underground network of racists operating out of shadowy enclaves, gun shows and fundamentalist churches. Both Howe and McVeigh were part of this world, whether or not their specific circles overlapped. Through interviews with experts, investigators and former members of these groups, one thing becomes clear: white supremacy thrives in packs. Even the lone wolf is never truly “alone”.

The Debutante
Audible

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[See also: The BBC podcast series A Very British Cult is dark and gripping]

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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age