The trial of Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing two years ago is one of those so-called "Trials of the Century," because it raises issues larger than the guilt or innocence of an individual.
Not that it resembles the "show trials" of totalitarian Germany, the Soviet Union, and China, with trumped-up charges and forced confessions intended to repress unorthodox ideas. In our country, the emblematic trial occurs more spontaneously, engaging the public because it encapsulates, and sometimes exacerbates, divisions among us.
In 1925 teacher John Scopes, violating a Tennessee state ban on teaching evolution, was fined $100 after a trial that pitted two famous lawyers against each other - William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. Scopes became a historic figure in the struggle between fundamentalist religion and natural science.
In the Scottsboro trial in Alabama in 1931, nine young blacks, after nearly being lynched, were convicted by a white jury on the flimsiest of evidence of having raped two white girls. Scottsboro stands as a monument to racial injustice. In 1968 the "Chicago Seven," agitating against the Vietnam War, were tried for incitement to riot. Four years later the Supreme Court struck down the convictions. The Chicago Seven remain a symbol of justice dispensed under wartime tensions.
More recently, with the news media serving as a megaphone, the national trauma about race wrapped around the names Rodney King, the black man beaten by the police, and Reginald Denny, the white man beaten by blacks in the ensuing riot in Los Angeles five years ago. Then came the O.J. Simpson murder trial, drawing a racial line as deep as the San Andreas fault. The Simpson trial, which held Americans spellbound, remains, to date, the nomination of most Americans for "Trial of the Century."
The trial in the Oklahoma City bombing case, not being on TV and not being about race, has not roused the same passions. Yet it also raises issues beyond individual guilt. In the first place, revelations of a stumblebum FBI crime laboratory threaten to bring federal law enforcement into the kind of disrepute that blemished local law enforcement in Los Angeles.
But the larger question is what in our society could produce a decorated soldier accused of the cold-blooded massacre of innocent Americans. Was President Clinton right two years ago when he enraged talk-show hosts by condemning the "loud and angry voices" that incite paranoia?
So now we have a trial raising the question of why our society cannot cope with its lunatic fringe - its militias, its nativists, and, now in Texas, its violent secessionists.
In this receding century that has seen so many American traumas displayed in courtrooms, one more "Trial of the Century."
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.