The bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City two years ago stunned America. The sheer scale of the tragedy was shocking, but so was the realization that someone probably planned and carried out this act of terror in service to some "higher," and highly deluded, sense of patriotism.
The trial under way in Denver will determine whether Timothy McVeigh, a former soldier who had grown to hate his own government, was that someone - or among a group of someones.
The prosecution says it will build a wall of evidence connecting Mr. McVeigh to the bombing. The defense says it will expose holes in that "wall," including mishandling of evidence by the FBI's much-criticized crime lab.
Nothing should be presumed about the defendant's guilt or innocence. But a number of things can be affirmed about the importance of this trial for late 20th century America.
First, the very process by which the trial is set in motion testifies to the value of the system the bomber reviled. The change of venue, the painstaking jury selection, the judge's efforts to prevent a media circus - all show a respect for justice no matter how heinous the crime. This courtroom drama may not have the allure of the O.J. trials, but it will be a crucial test of American justice.
Second, the buildup to the trial has emphasized the suffering caused by this crime. Families and friends of the 168 people killed in the 1995 blast are retelling their stories, and the country's sympathies are rekindled. Messages of encouragement have poured into the victims' World Wide Web site. This is evidence of a country whose bonds of citizenship and humanity are intact, along with its structure of justice.
Third, antigovernment sentiments and wild conspiracy theories continue to spawn militias and other fringe movements. Angry and alienated individuals gravitate toward them. In response, the majority of Americans have a duty to strengthen their democratic institutions, their sense of community, and their standards of right and wrong. That's the surest defense against anarchy and terrorism.