In the Wake of Oklahoma City, a Profound Change of Mood

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STATISTICIANS will tell you it's dangerous to make long-range projections from short-range data. But I'm a journalist, not a statistician, and accustomed to living with danger.

It seems to me that in the weeks since the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, America has begun to undergo a profound mood change. People are suddenly aware that hatred of government can exact a heavy price if carried too far. People are becoming, in the words of George Bush, a little ''kinder and gentler,'' but also feeling a lot more vulnerable.

After Oklahoma City, a Wall Street Journal reporter, Clare Ansbury, went to Butler, Pa., a town of 35,000, one thousand miles from Oklahoma City and found something new stirring -- a sense of the fragility of life. Schoolteacher Missy Frye, torn between teaching her children to love everyone and to trust no one. Nurse Becky Grey pausing a little longer in her nursing home rounds to listen to disoriented residents and stroke their hands. And Mayor Richard Schontz telling a group of tattooed motor bikers ''Government serves all the people.''

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So what? That's Butler, Pa. But Butler is not alone. The National Rifle Association must have felt a lot of heat since the resignation of life member George Bush to make it finally apologize for its fund-raising letter with inflammatory references to government agents as ''jack-booted thugs.''

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said he was sorry if anyone thought he was talking about all federal law enforcement officers. His letter sure sounded as though he was. It said that ''if you have a badge, you have the government's go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens.''

But never mind. Government bashing seems no longer chic. A recent Washington Post-ABC nationwide poll found that since Oklahoma City, anger at government is down, satisfaction with government is up. Three out of four believe people are too quick to criticize the federal government. Sixty-two percent do not believe that government threatens their personal rights and freedoms. Eighty-eight percent are not afraid of the federal government. Ninety percent do not think it's ever justified to take violent action against the federal government. About half think that private militia groups threaten their personal rights and freedom.

Surprised? It should be noted that the survey also indicates deep pockets of disaffection. But most Americans seem to have been shocked into an awareness that when dissatisfaction with government goes to an extreme, at the end of that continuum lies Oklahoma City.

Would it surprise you also to know that many Americans are reconsidering their enthusiasm for antigovernment rhetoric on talk radio? In the Post-ABC poll, 58 percent agreed with President Clinton's charge that some talk show hosts spread hateful ideas and give the impression that violence is acceptable.

America seems different now than before April 19. I don't know how different or how long it will last.

Richard Givan, a lawyer in Butler, Pa., says that around his office people are divided over how to prevent another tragedy. They are divided about gun control and about new powers for the FBI. He said, ''Our hearts brought us together, and now our brains are starting to split us again.''

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