Lessons from Oklahoma City
Sunday was the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, a crime that killed 168 people — including 19 children — and wounded several hundred more. Typically, such anniversaries get big play in the media and our culture, but the coronavirus pandemic is, rightfully so, sucking up most of our attention these days.
The bombing deserves to be remembered in its own right. But a look back at the events of 1995 also offers perspective on the challenges we face today. The threat we face now is a virus, instead of an angry domestic terrorist — but like the pandemic, the deadly attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building revealed the character of our leaders and exposed some blind spots in our collective thinking.
Here are three lessons from that event:
The biggest threats can come from unexpected places. We know now that the Oklahoma City bombing was committed by Timothy McVeigh, a disaffected Army vet who held anti-government views. But in the first hours after the attack, the focus settled mainly on the likelihood of Islamic terrorism. "Police do not know for certain whether the bombing is foreign terrorism or domestic," The New York Times' A.M. Rosenthal wrote two days later. "Either way, the fact remains that whatever we are doing to destroy Mideast terrorism, the chief terrorist threat against Americans, has not been working."
Rosenthal was partly right: Mideast terrorism was still a threat to America — the Oklahoma bombing came just two years after a first, failed attack on the World Trade Center, and six years before the devastating events of 9/11. Three days after the bombing, though, McVeigh was identified as the bomber.
Today, our political leaders appear unready to seriously deal with a pandemic. Other "threats" — Iran, China, immigrants from south of the border — have long occupied the attention of the Trump administration. And even now, nearly two months into the coronavirus crisis, Republicans seem eager to fit the new challenge into a pre-existing framework by using the COVID-19 outbreak to jump-start a new Cold War with China. But if the main lesson America takes away from current events is "don't trust China," we might not be ready when the next epidemic hits.
Right-wing radicalism can do tremendous damage. The emergence of McVeigh and his accomplice, Terry Nichols, brought to light a strain of anti-government radicalism in American life — a "militia movement" defined by racism, devotion to guns, and a conception of freedom so extreme that members often refused to even use license plates on their cars. Indeed, McVeigh was arrested 90 minutes after the bombing not because he was a suspect, but because he was fleeing the scene in a car that lacked plates.
It's not difficult to see similar ideas animating a few of the anti-lockdown protesters who have demonstrated across the country in the last week. Some carry firearms — an implicit threat against the state governments they are protesting — and others fly modified Confederate battle flags. Some even show their racism and anti-Semitism openly. Their numbers are relatively few — most Americans want quarantine restrictions to stay in place — and they haven't mounted a direct attack on their local governments the way McVeigh did. But there are reports that some right-wing extremists see current events as a moment for armed conflict. This is a dangerous time for America.
Difficult times call for strong leadership. While President Bill Clinton's impeachment hadn't happened by the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, he'd had a rough presidency: His signature health-care plan had failed and Republicans had captured Congress the year before, turning then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich into a celebrity. Clinton seemed callow and flawed, a mediocrity of a chief executive who had risen on the strength of charisma and ambition.
When the bombing occurred, though, Clinton acted presidentially. He went before the press, announced the steps the federal government would take in response to the disaster, and asked Americans to pray for the victims. "Meanwhile, we will be about our work," he said. He was calm, measured — and he said everything he needed to say in under three minutes. He didn't look for a scapegoat. He didn't linger at the podium, bantering and bashing journalists. He set an agenda and didn't undermine it by reversing himself, in action or tone, the next day.
Clinton was deeply flawed. But when history presented a challenge, he didn't give into his shortcomings and nurse his grievances out in public. He tried to be who the American people needed him to be. He behaved like a leader. He certainly didn't try to stir up more trouble, as President Trump has by encouraging anti-quarantine protests.
The bombing of Oklahoma City is more than history, of course. It was — and for the survivors, remains — a horrifying tragedy for all involved. We are living through another tragedy that will mark all of us who survive it. Let's make sure we learn, and apply, the right lessons this time.
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