It was April 19, 1995 when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed. Before this heinous event I had invested several years in researching domestic terrorism and in writing a Novel I called The 47th Day. I had also been tracking terrorist groups country by country ( and terrorist) events around the world since the 1970s.
Five day after Oklahoma City, April 24, 1995 I wrote the following, which I intended to send as as a VIEWPOINT to our local newspaper, The Kalamazoo Gazette. For reasons now long forgotten, I never sent the piece. In looking for something else I ran across this and was struck by the fact that much of what I wrote back then, and the observations made still hold today. This is not an indictment of any particular political group. Rather it is a look at what seemed to me to be steady, slowly spreading simmering discontent in this country, especially the rural and fly-over parts. The Oklahoma City Bombing was neither a milestone, nor a watermark in the history of domestic terrorism, save perhaps for the magnitude of casualties.
The alleged perpetrators of the Oklahoma crime are being portrayed as a violent fringe of demented people with peculiar beliefs, and they certainly are, yet there some reason to believe that the “fringe” is not as small as the media and knee-jerk political rants suggest. If the fringe is defined as those parts of society outside the “mainstream,” those who feel isolated and alienated from the political infrastructure, the “fringe” may be considerably larger than it appears at first blush. What this portends for the future, I don’t know.
Isolation and alienation occur when people feel ignored by political power, or persecuted by it, and see no logical way to obtain power except to seize it in the same way our Founding Fathers seized it more than two hundred years ago – violently and in open rebellion. That time however, the rebellion came from the money-men and the top and was pushed down to the poor to prosecute for their “betters.”
One might argue convincingly that the seeds of such rebellion are not only planted now, but growing slowly.
The massive national political move to the right in last fall’s elections (Conservative Republicans took 2 of 3 House and Senate seats) suggests a rejection of Big Government centered in Washington, D.C. Our Capital is increasingly seen as distant, disinterested, impotent, and uncaring. Those inside the Beltway have their insulated way of life and let the others eat cake.
The conditions of violence and economic abandonment in many of our rural or semi-rural and suburban regions suggest a rebellion against incumbent power and the status quo. The riots in L.A. surrounding the Rodney King incident were reminiscent of earlier outbreaks in Watts, Detroit and elsewhere where open warfare broke out against police officers and brought looting, and other illegal acts of desperate people. Our mistake is seeing such things in black and white terms. They are not. The country’s poor may not be rioting and killing cops, but it the cauldron is simmering and people are not far from taking some kind of drastic action.
In virtually any part of rural and blue collar America, you will hear attitudes and opinions that range from healthy skepticism to vehement cynicism about the Federal government. You will also hear nightmarish archetypes (modern myths) about life among The Other, stories with no basis in fact, yet as is true with all myths, accepted for their symbolic and archetypal power to differentiate us from them.
Consider the immediate swing of public opinion against Arabs and Middle Easterners while the fires were still burning on the Federal Building ruins in Oklahoma City. We seem to be a nation of victims looking for other victims to replace us.
Middle Class whites are reputed to have led the conservative shift last fall; poor whites play only a marginal role in the shift because the poor (of any color) generally don’t express their dissatisfaction at the ballot box. Yet the sense of frustration with Washington felt by the Middle Class, is also felt by the poor, and perhaps more keenly because such folks have little ability to do anything about their circumstances Certain racial classes may lead the poverty roles percentagewise, but in sheer numbers the poor in this country are white and most people, including our political and elected leaders, seem to pay little attention to this reality.
At the heart of the pro-gun movement there is an inherent belief that anti-gun foes are led by the government and, all logic aside, people wonder why they must disarm. The facts are in their favor. That is, most white people who own weapons do not commit murders or mayhem. Most people of any color and with any level of privately owned arms don’t commit such crimes. Weapon ownership is seen as a Constitutional right and adherents wonder, if they are not acting criminally, why the push to disarm them? It’s a reasonable question. Absent compelling answers, people tend to invent their own.
Our justice system is viewed as inept at best and a mass failure at the worst. Slick lawyers and incompetent judges make a pathetic stew. People with means (money and connections) get a different quality of “justice” than the poor, and never mind color.
The mass media, pursuing the commercial definition of news (that which attracts audience size attracts advertising revenue) give us a steady stream of stories of violence and outrage.The media formula for squeaky-wheel news is so well understood that infinitesimal groups with obscure grievances, real and imagined, can manage their way to major news coverage, creating, at least momentarily, perceptions not warranted by reality.
Churches in this, the most religious of nations, offer claims to the path to peace and love and salvation (some are also preaching that wealth is an indicator of God’s light) but some churches act more like competing country and social clubs in a battle for members and their money. In the best traditions of institutional (not necessarily enlightened) write off non-believers of competing groups as doomed in the sense of ever achieving salvation. Nationally known spiritual leaders, their feet of clay publicly cracked and revealed, go off to jail for bilking believers, yet beliefs continue because human beings need to believe in something, however imperfect. It’s no wonder that many of the cults and leftfield political groups in this country use the rhetoric of God and religion and organize along church-like lines.
Under such conditions, isolation and alienation seem inevitable.
What will the view be of Washington when late baby boomers hit their mid to late sixties and find a sick and ailing Social Security or social net?
The economic trend lines among minorities of all hues and ethnic backgrounds, especially the poor, the young, and the elderly, are not comforting.
Warfare, is said to the be the last option of diplomacy, but if the individual is a sovereign citizen, then violence is the last option of individuals trapped without hope.
Violent and extremist political organizations and pseudo-spiritual cults have always been with us, just as vigilantism has been a constant and ugly thread in American history.
My own Michigan has had its share,
In 1936, sixteen Michiganders were arrested as members of an organization called the Black Legion, though responsible for 57 assassinations and attempted killings over a half decade. The national umbrella group for the Black Legion was the United Brotherhood of America, headquartered in Ohio. Members of the Black Legion here in Michigan were white, drawn from the ranks of the employed and unemployed, from blue collar ranks, members of government agencies, day laborers, police officers, firemen, hospital workers. This group operated in virtual anonymity for nearly a decade and was only accidentally uncovered here in the process of a murder investigation. The Black Legion controlled numerous front organizations with names that ought to strike a familiar chord: The Wolverine Republican League, the Bullet Club, The Wayne County Rifle and Pistol Club, the Malteca Club, Night Riders, and The Black Knights.
History, it seems to me, doesn’t repeat so much as it doesn’t change a hell of a lot.
The so-called Patriot Movement spawned state militias, pledged their allegiance to the American flag and proclaimed themselves patriots in service to country – not, it should be noted, in service to government, but to country. The men and women I know who serve and have served, may do it out of patriotism, but feel no need to bellow it to the public or to get a bunch of attaboys and attagirls. It’s my prejudice, but I always suspect people and groups who self-name themselves patriots or claim similar titles. Whenever I have dug into such groups (militias, etc) I have found them invariably the opposite of what they purport to be.
In the collective American psyche, there seems to have developed a profound difference between government and country. Perhaps this has always been around, but it is a relatively recent discovery for me. The difference? A country is loved unconditionally (theoretically) but a government is never to be trusted.
I spent three or four years looking at this shaded part of America in preparation for writing my novel, which I completed and sent to my editor at Random House. He sent it back some time later and said in essence, no can do, he couldn’t suspend his disbelief long enough to accept the premise. He told me, “What you’ve written could not happen in this country.”
A few months later came Oklahoma City and that day I got a frantic call from that same editor. “What you wrote can be real. It is real. Send that manuscript back to me ASAP!” which I did, and not long after, he died suddenly, and that was the end of that book. Such are the vagaries of a publishing career.
In researching, studying and spending time with different groups I observe certain shared characteristics:
1) Race or ethnic identity is often a central issue. We hear mostly about white racists, but racism is not exclusive to one race;
2) Such groups often arise from a single individual with charisma and the ability to give voice and a compelling story to a perceived wrong shared by others;
3) Paranoia provides glue. Such groups view themselves as targets of various conspiracies. The government and its law enforcement arms are viewed as The Enemy;
4) Weapons and paramilitary training are not uncommon, even among groups claiming to be extensions or offshoots of traditional and conventional religions. If there’s a conspiracy to get you, you need to be able to defend yourself. Self-defense is a common line of rhetoric espoused simultaneously with a group’s push to develop offensive capabilities. This is not surprising. Over Fifty years of Cold War our Federal government behaved similarly;
5) The movements often are presented as quasi-religious with the inherent right to worship freely; more often, such groups take on the force of religion for their adherents and those who try to opt out are demonized, and worse;
6) The groups all espouse self-determination; that is, the right to do and think and believe what they want without external interference. Ironically, such groups seem to demand near-absolute obedience to the cause by all members;
7) The membership is drawn from the disaffected. But the disaffected can take in fairly large segments of our population, and this distinction is sometimes not apparent. There has been in the history of American hate groups quite a number of highly educated founders and leaders. To write off such groups as ignorant clods or uneducated fools is to invite disaster. Smarts and education are different things. It often doesn’t take a genius to coalesce support; Hitler is a classic example of a sociopathic maniac who found an audience and used it to ruthlessly move to take power;
8) The founders of such groups tend to lead by the authoritarian model of top-down, often imposing a military style chain of command on their organizations. Such groups, as they grow, tend to disintegrate because the original leaders lack vision or persuasion power to take the group to the next level. Or the founder-leader refuses to share the vision or his power with fellow believers. This, on the surface, might seem to indicate that the ability of such groups to survive is small, but the reality is that while one group may fail, adherents will move to like-minded groups, or found their own. In a society filled with increasing numbers of alienated and disaffected individuals, the recruiting field in quite fertile. Remember, a cancerous tumor is a collection of cells, not a single cell. The overall hate movement grows larger, not smaller. Not single group dominates, but this is not to say that one day movements may coalesce and join forces and visions;
9) Because of some law enforcement excesses spawned during the Vietnam War, the Justice Department has implemented controls that minimize the ability of law enforcement to identify, surveil and infiltrate such groups. Because the burden of common crime is in some places so heavy, and police resources limited, hate groups often take a lower priority until an outrage changes the priority. Violent behavior is not exclusive to one part of our political range. It can come from the left or the right, and has;
10) Hate groups exist everywhere, in apparent small numbers if only active participants are counted, but when cadres of philosophical and ideological sympathizers are considered, the overall size of this fragmented movement is much, much larger than it might initially appear. The aggregate of sympathizers is not at all insubstantial and the role of sympathizers in the proliferation of underground and extremist organizations. In every conflict there are more sympathizers than participants and combatants; in our own American Revolution there is evidence that there were fewer rebels and sympathizers for rebellion, than Americans loyal to Great Britain. This changed over time, but it began with the rebellion seated in a small portion of people. The power of small, committed groups to violently affect political and social change against unfavorable odds must never be underestimated;
11) These groups invariably strike the chord of Constitutional rights and protection under the law at the same time they seek to deny others their Constitutionally guaranteed rights and protection; and,
12) Organizations disappear entirely, or go dormant and later re-emerge when conditions are deemed more favorable. As long as conditions which spawn such movements persist, such groups will be among us.
The dreadful crime in Oklahoma City should terrify and sadden us, but it should not have come as a surprise. The only real surprise is more tragedies of this kind have not happened before this.
The truth is that the government, for all its size and impressive might, is limited in its ability to keep us completely protected from all psychopathic elements of our society and others around the world. Even if President Clinton gets the legislative initiatives he wants to allow police agencies to increase their efforts, episodes like that in Oklahoma City will no doubt be reduced, but they cannot be eliminated.
In Russia (aka the old USSR) citizens now lament the loss of domestic peace and stability under the Communists when there was virtually no crime. (Disinformation as much as reality).The Russians also had no freedoms. With true freedom comes the competition of ideas and beliefs and frequent verbal sniping , criticism and complaints. Sometimes such dissatisfaction turns to violent behavior.
President Clinton is right in calling for us to speak up in the face of hate rhetoric. But if the wake of Oklahoma City creates a politically intimidating environment that will not allow all opinions, no matter how loathsome, to come forward into the light, we will all be the poorer for this. We already have seen in this country a powerful force coercing us toward what is called political correctness. What is deemed “correct” is dictated and controlled by those in power. This is the major take-home of history.
Opposing groups attempt to control the story of what is and what has been, but suppress any and all opposing stories or contentions.
Hate is like anaerobic bacteria living lives in the ark and proliferating in the absence of oxygen. In our democracy, where we have always tended to put our faith in free speech, the way to defeat such pathogens is to expose them to light and oxygen, where they can be examined and rejected by the powerful collective good sense of the American people.
It won’t be easy. The battle will not ever be over, at least in our lifetimes.