A Bad Reaction

Anti-Terrorist Legislation Will Not Solve the Problems of Oklahoma City

An intense struggle rages in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing--a fight to define exactly what transpired on April 19. Our nation's leaders and our mainstream media have essentially construed the bombing as a frontal assault on the idea of America, a sort of sharp uppercut at the nerve center of our nation. At the same time, however, a 'revisionist school' has emerged, dedicated to stripping away layers of myth and metaphor and understanding the bombing in the context of a series of tragic events, foremost among them, the FBI raid on the Waco compound two years prior.

The best way, perhaps, to gauge the 'mainstream' reaction to Oklahoma is to consider the anti-terrorism bill that on Tuesday passed the Senate in a unanimous 90-0 vote, The bill--originally proposed by the Clinton administration in 1993 in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombing--calls for the hiring of 1,500 new federal agents, the amending of the privacy act in order to allow for more widespread use of electronic surveillance and the changing of immigration law in order to expedite the deportation of aliens suspected of terrorist involvement.

The bill represents a shamefully political reaction to the events of Oklahoma City. Although the content of the bill is, for the most part, not fundamentally objectionable--with the exception, perhaps, of the anti-alien clause--its timing is open to question. On the day of the vote, with teary-eyed relatives of Oklahoma victims standing alongside, senators indulged in the sort of sentimental anti-terrorist rhetoric that is impossible to contradict and so ends up meaning nothing. No self-respecting legislator wants to be soft on terrorists.

At the same time, however, this sort of all-too-easy anti-terrorist speak only serves to muddle our understanding of what went on in Oklahoma City. We must ask ourselves in the first place: Ought there to be legislation designed especially for crimes of this sort? And if so, is it reasonable for Congress to draft this legislation in the throes of national outrage over the bombing?

Everyone from President Clinton to Senator Dole is cashing in on the tragic events of Oklahoma. They are turning the bombing into an occasion for meditating on the (shattered) American dream, rather than an opportunity for carrying out a substantive evaluation of what happened at Oklahoma City, and why. To be sure, that is the role of the courts, and we should expect to hear much about the bombing--O.J.-style--in the years to come. Yet, the government has already proved itself incapable of simply letting the judiciary handle this matter. At the very least, the legislatures should meddle prudently and responsibly.


None of this is meant to diminish in the least the magnitude of the human tragedy at Oklahoma City. The images of that day will forever be ingrained in the national consciousness: limbs and lives--and most terrifying of all, babies--strewn about in a smoldering pile of death. There is not, nor will there ever be, a bill or verdict powerful enough to undo the spectacular crime committed in Oklahoma City. But it is naive and irresponsible for our media and our political leaders to fail to address the substantive reasons for the bombing, rather than dwell on its admittedly catastrophc results.

Any inquiry into the genesis of the bombing must begin with a re-consideration of the events at Waco two year ago. As evidenced by the fact that the Oklahoma bombers chose to carry out their attack on the second anniversary of the FBI raid on the Branch Davidians, Waco was a formative moment in the unfolding of the sort of hatred and fear of the federal government that came to a head in the Oklahoma bombing.

In a deeply disturbing article in First Things, Dean M. Kelley, Counselor on Religious Liberty for the National Council of Churches, presents a revisionist account of the government raids on Waco, a 180-degree turn from the manner in which Waco was reported to Americans at the time the drama was unfolding. According to Kelley's wellreasoned thesis, the violence and carnage at Waco were chiefly the result of a radical over-extension of federal force and an outright violation of the constitutional rights of the Branch Davidians.

One walks away from the Kelley article with the strong sense that Waco was not a minor federal snafu, but a watershed in American religious and political history. One walks away also with the beginning of an understanding of why the Oklahoma bombers conceived of their sinister plan in the first place. The heavily armed militias that are becoming ever more popular in this country do not simply fashion a delusional vision of the abuses of federal power. Waco proves that their seemingly outlandish claims are not entirely without grounding.

Understanding is not tantamount to condoning. The bombing was an evil act, a sinister act, a cowardly act. But if anything productive at all is to come out of the the events of April 19, it will only be through a substantive consideration of why the bombing happened in the first place.

The proposed anti-terrorism bill is a step in the wrong direction. The bill politicizes the bombing, turns it into an occasion for a legislative event. More than a piece of legislation or a poignant evocation of American innocence lost, this country needs to enter a gutwrenching dialogue with itself about the social and political disenfranchisement of its own citizenship, especially those that have taken up arms against the United States government.

As the Oklahoma City bombers are murderers, they ought to be executed. As they are part of a growing number of Americans who cannot conceive of a role for themselves within our social fabric, their desperate call ought to be heeded--and acted upon.