Coping With the New Extremism

Prayers for a Grim Rescue Effort

ONE fifth-grader delivered a basket of brownies and a card saying that rescue workers are in his ''prares.'' A woman who appeared to be poor dropped off cases of baby food to a relief organization.

Even as the goodwill was pouring forth, however, emergency crews scoured the ruins of the bombed-out federal building, edging closer to a day-care center where dozens of child victims may be located. Elsewhere, prayers echoed from pulpits for a city in mourning.

This is a community of conflicting emotions five days after America's worst terrorist bombing. There is amazement over the lightning-quick arrest of a suspect in the case but introspection over his identity. There is sorrow over the unfruitful search for survivors but gratitude to donors and workers from outside the state.

And, as always, there is pride in Oklahomans' own efforts. ''People around the world are seeing the true spirit of Oklahoma,'' says volunteer Sara Navarro.

Ms. Navarro is a child-care worker who joined dozens of volunteers in painting and cleaning the State Fairgrounds Arena prior to yesterday's prayer service for the bomb victims.

''To share and to care -- the people here know that's the way it always is,'' she says of Oklahoma, which a publisher once considered so insignificant that it deliberately omitted the state from an atlas of the United States.

Jeanette Gregory and 10 other members of her church drove two hours from Ames, population 300, to Oklahoma City on Saturday. They spent the day at Feed The Children, sorting goods donated to sustain the rescue workers and relieve displaced families.

''We all know when we're needed,'' says Mrs. Gregory, who describes herself as a ''farmer's wife.'' ''We work with each other and take care of each other.''

FTC is the primary organization that receives and sorts donated goods to pass along to the Red Cross and Salvation Army for distribution. Last year it distributed $70 million worth of assistance to improverished families around the world. But with last week's bomb blast just five miles from its headquarters, the organization is seeing ''trauma from the inside out,'' says senior vice president Jerry Ballard.

Tom Glass, a cowboy poet and log cabin builder, says Oklahoma's cowboy spirit has been a ''rallying cry.'' As a member of the Medical Examiner's staff, he bears the grim duty of identifying bomb victims.

''Everybody wants to be connected in a helpful way,'' Dr. Glass says of the overwhelming flow of donations. Gifts of home-cooked hamburgers have helped to sustain the spirts of those ''on the front lines,'' he says.

Many are pleased that an Oklahoma lawman, state trooper Charles Hanger, gets credit for the arrest of the prime suspect.

''It's nice to see somebody get noticed and appreciated for something he does every day,'' comments an Oklahoma County sheriff's deputy who did not wish to be named.

But in electronic mail aired by a local radio station, one Oklahoman pointed out that the suspect, Tim McVeigh, would only have been ticketed for lacking a license plate and proof of insurance. It was his illegally concealed handgun that caused him to be jailed long enough for authorities to connect him to the bombing.

Perhaps, the e-mailer reasoned, that ought to cause Oklahoma to decide against a proposed right-to-carry law.

The arrest of a white American apparently angry at the government has raised complex questions of fairness to other groups. Oklahoma City has a large Muslim community.

''Everytime there is a crisis, they get the blame,'' says Michael Bartley, a Methodist minister. ''It has created a lot of fear.'' He and other Christian pastors here attended a Muslim prayer service on Friday as a show of solidarity.

The government's handling of the seige of a Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which law enforcment authorities allege may have goaded Mr. McVeigh to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma City, was viewed with suspicion by many rural conservatives.

Waco may have spurred the growth of anti-government paramilitary groups, like the one to which associates of McVeigh had belonged in Michigan. In Oklahoma, members of such groups, fearful that the government will take away their guns, ''come in here all the time,'' says a clerk at Army Surplus Store Inc.

''They buy camouflage uniforms and ammunition boxes so they'll be ready when the government falls. Some of the ones I know are probably out in foxholes right now,'' he adds.

The clerk, not wishing to be named, says the members were ''nuts'' from ''small-town Oklahoma.'' But another clerk disagreed, saying that only a few are extremists.

A customer, an officer from Tinker Air Force Base, says some members of paramilitary organizations have been in the military, as was McVeigh, a machine gunner in Desert Storm.

''I've seen them at gun shows, walking around in battle dress uniforms and carrying automatic weapons,'' the officer says with contempt.

He explains that carrying guns is allowed at such shows, but police at the door temporarily disable the weapons.

While local residents debated the motives of paramilitary groups, the city -- and nation -- took time out Sunday for prayer services. Church bells rang across the country as a sign of hope for families waiting to hear the fate of loved ones.

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