More than 20 years ago I received an assignment to go to Oklahoma City after the bombing of the Alfred E. Murrah Federal Building. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols conspired to destroy a symbol of government power — without regard for human life.
One-hundred-sixty-eight people were killed and 680 injured in that incident.
The people of Oklahoma City asked themselves, “Why?” and especially, “Why here?”
Jannie Coverdale lost her two grandchildren, Elijah and Aaron, in the blast.
Jim Denny could only identify his 3-year-old son Brandon by a birthmark on the boy’s thigh when he arrived at the hospital.
One of the victims, Rebecca Anderson, was a licensed practical nurse who rushed to the bomb site immediately after hearing the explosion. “She was probably the finest woman God ever put on this earth,” her husband, Fred Anderson, said.
In the weeks that followed, investigators determined that the killers had links with militia groups throughout the country. The militias and paramilitary organizations sought a New World Order and to create division within the country based on racial heritage or country of origin. All in the name of our “constitutional freedoms.”
Scenes of bloodshed also played out in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where extremists and the federal government dueled in deadly standoffs.
Little has changed since that time — in fact, some militia members have been emboldened by rhetoric in Congress.
Oregon’s Rep. Greg Walden, in urging clemency for Dwight and Steven Hammond — the ranchers jailed for arson on federal property — spoke angrily on the House floor of his constituents’ “tension,” “frustration” and “anger” over federal land management policies.
These are words that inflame emotions, not soothe them. Any sympathy for armed rebellion in Harney County is misplaced.
The lesson I’m learning in Oregon is many good people want to help the Hammonds but not the Bundys.
Our sister paper, the East Oregonian, wisely notes residents in the sparsely populated high desert area are “largely rebuffing” the militant Ammon Bundy and his followers.
“The real question is how that land should be managed and how grazing and natural resource extraction will remain viable and part of the multiple use doctrine that historically governed public lands,” the East Oregonian writes. “Government policy once fostered the timber, livestock and mining industries that became the economic lifeblood of rural Western communities. Current policy — the result of environmental lawsuits and regulatory and legislative changes — is largely responsible for draining that lifeblood.”
On the coast, we may be far from Harney County, but many of the same issues prevail. We have thousands of acres of timber and coastal land. We have a federal government overseeing and considering approval of a billion dollar pipeline over the will of impassioned citizens of all political persuasions. We have conflicts between Native Americans and management of their tribal lands. Fishermen face national and international regulations that may, to their eyes, defy logic.
All these issues must be vigorously debated and legislated.
But nuance doesn’t play well in a crisis.
The words “good” and “evil” are so strictly defined by each of us in our own way that it’s almost impossible to accept shades of gray. Extremism triumphs.
Events like the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation only set back the conversation — there is little value to legislation from the barrel of a gun or in the aftermath of tragedy.
The bombing of the Murrah Federal Building seems long ago and far away, but the lives lost in Oklahoma City in 1995 are irreplaceable.
“The Oklahoma City blast had repercussions that went far beyond the death toll,” we wrote in 1995. “The American people suddenly got a glimpse of a new terrorist threat — a threat from within.”
“The antigovernment movement has experienced a resurgence since 2008, when President Obama was elected,” writes the Southern Poverty Law Center. Factors fueling the movement include changing demographics driven by immigration, a struggling economy and the election of the first African-American president.
The “inspiration” provided by many in the militia movement is no more of a divine message than that of the jihadists.
We conclude with this message from the Oregon State Police, who issued this statement last Wednesday, on behalf of all 36 sheriff offices in the state. “The sheriffs of Oregon are united in the support of Harney County and its residents. We are supplying logistical and operational support to the community while the FBI works for a peaceful resolution with the militants at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,” they said. “We want the good people of Harney County and the state of Oregon to know that we will always unite to provide support and assistance to ensure the safety of our residents, for any length of time, whenever criminal activity or an emergency, fractures the peace and security in our communities.”
It is those men and women, and all those on the front lines of our nation’s defense, who are our real constitutional heroes.