Oklahoma City bombing: Is 1995 repeating itself today?

Americans observed the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing Monday. Some believe that the extremist political climate in which the bomber, Timothy McVeigh, operated is resurging.

Sue Ogrocki/AP
People gather under the Survivor Tree at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, Monday, during the memorial ceremony marking the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.

It’s been 15 years since Timothy McVeigh blew up an Oklahoma City federal building with a truck bomb. One hundred and sixty eight people died, and more than 600 others were injured, in what remains America’s worst-ever case of home-grown terrorism.

Since that day, US law enforcement has been on guard against a repeat of such an attack. To see how much the Oklahoma City bombing changed the federal government, just look at the new Washington headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It’s protected by a barrier that looks like a giant concrete and steel fence, which is designed to prevent any explosives-laden vehicle from getting close to the building.

But assaults on symbols of Uncle Sam continue. In February, for instance, a pilot with a grudge against the government flew a small plane into an Internal Revenue Service office in Austin, Texas. Could a disaster on the scale of Oklahoma City ever happen again?

Bill Clinton, who was president at the time of Mr. McVeigh’s assault, is among those who think the political environment of today has some dangerous similarities to that of 1995. He’s talked a lot about it in recent days.

“We have done a much better job over the last 15 years of preparing for it and guarding against it ... but I think the circumstances have a lot of parallels,” Mr. Clinton said last week on CNN.

Today, the former site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building is the Oklahoma City National Memorial, dedicated to those were killed and hurt in the attack. On Monday, hundreds of people gathered there for ceremonies marking the 15th anniversary of the bombing.

Bells tolled throughout the city prior to a ceremony that began shortly before the 9:02 a.m. time of the explosion. Attendees included Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.

“We can’t put a dome over our country. We can’t guarantee there won’t be another attack,” Secretary Napolitano said.

But the United States is a strong and resilient nation, and Americans can vow that even a successful attack will not defeat their way of life, she said.

“We can target our resources against emerging threats and evolving risks,” she said.

Some believe that the extremist political climate in which McVeigh operated is today making a resurgence. Resentment over racial changes in America, combined with the bad economy, is producing an extremist comeback, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks militia activity.

Today there are 512 extremist militias and so-called patriot groups in the US, up from 149 such groups only a year ago, says the SPLC’s Mark Potok.

“[R]esurgent anger at the federal government has again caught fire,” Mr. Potok writes in a recent SPLC newsletter.

Clinton, for his part, says that the demonization of the federal government was much more serious during his terms in office.

At the time, “the fabric of American life had been unraveling,” he said last Friday at a Center for American Progress Action Fund seminar, which examined the effects of the Oklahoma City bombing.

One lesson of the tragedy is that “words matter,” according to Clinton. Though he did not say so directly, he seemed to imply that some conservative commentators may go too far with fiery rhetoric.

There is a line that divides legitimate criticism from the advocacy of violence, Clinton said. “And the closer you get to that line, and the more responsibility you have, the more you have to think about the echo chamber in which your words resonate,” he said.

Last week, talk-show host Rush Limbaugh maintained that Clinton was blaming him for the Oklahoma City bombing. He strenuously objected to what he characterized as Clinton’s link between conservative ideology and terrorism.

In essence, Mr. Limbaugh said on his show, Clinton was predicting that “tea party” adherents are going to blow up another federal building.

“I’m going to state right now: If there is a future incident such as Oklahoma City, the blame is squarely ... on the shoulders of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who I’m sure is coordinating Clinton’s appearance on this,” Limbaugh said, according to a show transcript posted on his website.

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