Laying Bare America's Seedbed of Discontent
A look at rural distrust of government
PONCA CITY, OKLA. — "The men sat in the doorways of their houses; their hands were busy with sticks and little rocks. The men sat still - thinking, figuring."
- John Steinbeck, 'The Grapes of Wrath'
In a lifetime of farming on Oklahoma's northern plains, Bill Carmichael has seen tornadoes, hailstorms, floods, spring freezes, and insect plagues ravage his crops.
But walking through his wheat fields, Mr. Carmichael talks about a new pestilence, one that cannot be attributed to the vagaries of nature. "These militias scare me," he says, bracing his Stetson against a chilly wind. "These people can't sit and twiddle their thumbs forever."
One year after the Oklahoma City bombing, Americans are paying closer attention to groups like citizen militias, which nourish a deep distrust of the federal government.
Here in the lap of the wheat belt, where 20 years of agricultural upheaval have shattered many farm communities and where Washington is often viewed as a meddlesome camp, these angry groups have made quiet headway.
But for Oklahomans like Carmichael, who do not hold extreme views, the blast has given them pause. They're concerned that perhaps, in some indirect way, the bomb that killed 168 people here is as much a product of America's heartland as the food on the nation's grocery shelves.
"Everyone here feels a twinge of guilt about the bombing," says Paul Heath, founder of the Oklahoma City Murrah Building Survivors' group, "because they feel they were not totally reasoned in their criticism of government."
While there's a chasm of difference between most Oklahomans and a vocal militia minority, both increasingly share an uneasiness about the influence of government on their lives. Militias and antitax groups have sprouted in rural areas, and Washington has been pilloried by hundreds of political candidates, including "outsiders" like Patrick Buchanan.
Early this month, during debate on the antiterrorism bill, Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois lamented that a colleague told him he trusted the terrorist group Hamas "more than I trust my own government."
This suspicion is partly fueled by politics. But two seminal events - the 1992 standoff at Randy Weaver's cabin in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas - have helped spread feelings of distrust and expose a difference in the ways urban and rural Americans view federal authority.
"This whole group in the middle of the country feels left out of the loop," says Nick Harris, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City. "To them, some of the things the government does are a violation of their moral understandings. They wonder if the whole society has gone mad."
Given their often secretive nature, it's difficult to estimate membership in militias. But antitax groups and entities like the Montana "freemen," who reject federal laws and currency, have clearly found a receptive audience in the countryside. In several Southern and Midwestern states, "common law courts" are regularly convened in motels and federal officials are summarily tried and convicted for "crimes" against working people.
Although most of these groups denounced the Oklahoma City bombing, there is an apparent link between the rural unrest and the nation's worst terrorist attack: Terry Nichols.
The suspect federal prosecutors will portray as the bombing mastermind, Mr. Nichols, has deep rural roots. He was raised on a farm in Decker, Mich. After his discharge from the Army in 1992, Nichols returned to farming in Decker and later in Marion, Kan.
In Kansas, Nichols wrote a letter to the county clerk in which he attempted to revoke his American citizenship by declaring himself a "nonresident alien nonforeigner" and called the federal government a "fraudulent, usurping octopus."
Like many small farmers, Nichols was heavily in debt. According to ABC News, he owed more than $17,000 to one New Hampshire bank that issued him a credit card. In 1992, when the bank sued him for nonpayment, Nichols went to court and claimed that the credit was not a valid form of currency.
The incident at once placed Nichols among the ranks of the thousands of farmers who are struggling to make ends meet, and those who blame their problems on laws and institutions.
SUCH complaints are not unfamiliar to Carmichael. Sometimes in the winter months, when the sky is leaden and the land idle, and farmers gather in coffee shops, he hears talk about wrongheaded federal farm policies and greedy banks. This year, as Oklahoma farmers struggle with one of the driest seasons in memory, these feelings of desperation and anger are not subsiding.
"Some guys get so fired up talking like this, they almost come to 'fist city' over it," Carmichael says. "The average country boy is working his tail off trying to make a living and he thinks 'everybody is getting a great deal but me.' "
In some ways, Carmichael says, government is just a convenient scapegoat for the vast changes in the farm economy. But in other ways, he adds, its policies may have contributed to the pain. Indeed, he has watched the farmer's image, once the epitome of independence and self-containment, erode during the past 20 years.
Economists trace the slide to a rise in grain sales to the Soviet Union in 1973. Wheat prices soared, and farmers began to borrow heavily and plant every spare acre. The next year, supply rose dramatically, prices plummeted, and many farmers went bankrupt.
Conditions did not improve in the 1980s. As more farmers went under, communities began to disintegrate. Carmichael remembers that, in his youth, there was a farmhouse on every 160 acres here. Now, he says, there's one on every 640. Schools and churches have been consolidated.
But Carmichael says the biggest change was the relationship between farmers and the federal government. The explosion of farm-subsidy programs, with all their incumbent regulations, he says, took control out of farmers' hands and made them feel like welfare recipients.
"If I want to plant another half acre, I have to think about what the government will pay us," Carmichael says. "We're not working for ourselves anymore, we're working for the government."
Carmichael doesn't agree with those who blame government policies and banks solely for the downturn. But he worries that after the bombing, the media goaded many reasonable people into making inflammatory statements that made them "sound like they just came in on the last load of potatoes."
Still, out of the attention may be a lesson, says James Loftis, architect of the Murrah Building. "We have to reach out to the elements who do not know what's going on," he says. "We have to allow them to speak their minds without putting the boot of the military on their necks."