Only if we stand back far enough can we put the mirror-image tragedies of Waco and Oklahoma City into a perspective that begins to make some sense. We might then see them not as satanic overtures to a new age of domestic terrorism, but as closing footnotes to an ugly century of world wars and global depressions. We have, after all, come through the century, incredibly, with our civil liberties intact. It would be unfortunate indeed if we were to react at this stage with crackdowns of the kind President Clinton and House Speaker Gingrich propose. The last thing we need are escalations of federal effort against the private militias that have formed in recent years. The only reason they have formed in such numbers has been the national anxiety over a federal Establishment that has seemed voracious in its eagerness to tax and intrude and regulate. The same pool of anxiety spawned the Perot movement in 1992, the term-limits movement, and the November 8 revolution on Capitol Hill. The people involved clearly see themselves as patriots, with the smallest fringe prepared to exact eye-for-an-eye retributions. The bombing in Oklahoma City was clearly an act of political terrorism designed to punish the federal Establishment for what appeared to be its act of political terror in Waco two years ago.
The difference, of course, is that Attorney General Janet Reno two years ago had a franchise from the body politic -- via her boss, the elected President -- to decide what to do about the Branch Davidians, a religious cult that had stockpiled arms. When her decision led to the incineration of 86 men, women and children, the nation shared responsibility for the terrible blunder. At the time, I thought she would resign, but in an unexpected twist she wound up being celebrated for appearing to shield Bill Clinton from blame, letting him hide behind her skirts. This was after he hastily went on television to assure the American people it was not his decision to use the full force of the government against a religious nut and his followers, as if David Koresh were Saddam Hussein. The following day I wrote: “The line of inquiry will now question the whole Politically Correct comedy of errors that put Ms. Reno into the position of having to prove her manhood -- as the first woman named the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.” It was Hillary Rodham Clinton, remember, who insisted that a woman be found for the Justice post, with several embarrassing discards before Ms. Reno was found. The excuse for storming the Waco compound was the rumor that the children were being sexually abused by the loonies within.
The whole business was swept under the carpet, though, as it was far too great an embarrassment to be dealt with by the 103rd Democratic Congress. The crazies who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City were not alone in thinking of Waco as an outrage, an injustice of monumental proportions. The April 19 date, which coincidentally celebrates the opening engagements of the American Revolution in 1775 at Lexington and Concord, had become enshrined to the memory of those at Waco by these private militias in some 30 states. We’re not reading tea leaves or mysterious encryptions here. It’s plain enough to see the connections. At the same time these right-wing zealots were observing a left-wing outcry against the police clubbing of Rodney King in Los Angeles, they observed Ms. Reno being hailed for taking full responsibility for Waco.
On the bright side, we noted even two years ago that a side effect of Waco would be to dampen the enthusiasm of our young President for a bombing campaign in Bosnia -- which was being pressed on him back then by Establishment hawks. In “Boris and Bosnia,” April 28, 1993, I wrote: “There is so little institutional memory in the President’s young team that the disaster in Waco may have served a useful purpose by underscoring the unintended consequences of the use of force. That is, if not for Waco, the President might have already succumbed to the clamor to start the bombing. To prevent the possibility of child abuse by the Branch Davidians, the United States government wound up gassing the children and their mothers, and the religious zealots within burned Mt. Carmel to the ground. There is no more possibility of child abuse at that place. Saving the children of Bosnia via the bombing of the Balkans will yield the same result.”
From a greater distance, we can note that 25 years ago, in the midst of a Vietnam experience that Robert McNamara now abjures, there were no private militias across the United States. Anyone who wanted to take up arms had volunteered for action in Vietnam. The activist fringes back then were on the left, in communes where love was made, not war, and a significant fraction of American youth that included Bill Clinton sought to evade the call to arms. The relevant point is that in an imperfect democracy such as ours we have to expect pendulum swings that run to illegal, at times violent extremes in periods of political distress. The political Establishment does eventually react to these signs of distress, which is what forced a losing conclusion to the Vietnam conflict.
The signs of distress that now appear in these grass-roots paramilitary groups will have a similar influence on the political Establishment, hastening the demobilization of federal power that accrued during the long Cold War. It is not entirely a coincidence that the stock market is hitting new highs even as the nation mourns the tragic loss of life in Oklahoma City. Just as we beat a strategic retreat from Vietnam, when our involvement there had gone beyond the point of diminishing returns, the nation is now insistent on the kind of power devolution that has only begun with Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America. During heated moments of the 100 days, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus thought they saw the influence of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany in the Republican cause. They surely see this influence in the glare of Timothy McVeigh.
Similarly, President Clinton is too close to the trees to see the forest. He found himself yesterday denouncing the “promoters of paranoia” for spreading hate on the public airways, and was promptly chastised by Rush Limbaugh: “I believe the people who have been ranting and raving about starving schoolchildren, calling these people involved in legitimate political dialog ‘extremists,’ are in fact promoters of paranoia and promoters of hate and divisiveness.” In the exchange, we can at least see how these events are entwined. After it became clear the terrorism was home grown and not made in Iraq or Libya, there were also awkward moments among members of Congress. Democratic Rep. Charles Schumer of New York had insisted that no stone be unturned in finding the Arab connection, but was then horrified at the suggestion of congressional hearings to reopen Waco. Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who wants to be President, also fulminated against an international cabal and demanded action, only to find the conspiracy coming from a slice of the population to which he is attuned.
The perpetrators of the terrible crime in Oklahoma City must be brought to justice, but the pool of anxiety and paranoia that spawned them should also be drained. This has already been started by the open national discussion about “McNamara’s War” as well as the connections between Waco and Oklahoma City. The greater problem is also well on the way to solution, as peacetime demobilization proceeds and the federal government gradually releases its wartime grip on our lives. Our democracy may be imperfect, but in one way or another it eventually gets us where we want to go.