It was "...a loss of innocence for Americans," Atlanta Constitution Cynthia Tucker syndicated columnist said. "We have not been exposed to this...We've really been very lucky. We had not been exposed to terrorism on our own soil, as many other countries have had to cope with, the Israelis for decades, the Europeans."
As the building exploded, CNN reported that "a stunned nation watched as bodies...were pulled from the rubble."
It is hard to forget the horror of these details: the explosion ripping through the city, the shattering glass, the smoke and dust, the loss of life. Yet forgotten it we have. The incident was the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.
The targeted federal building was not the financial center of the world. Commerce didn't come to a halt, and the airlines didn't have to go begging to Congress to be bailed out. Tourism wasn't interrupted anywhere but Oklahoma City--presumably not a major tourist destination--and the Dow Jones recovered quickly. In short, life went on, and it went on promptly.
After the explosion and mass murder of that terrible day in April, American flags did not sprout up on cars and mailboxes all over America. There were no lapel pins, no greeting cards, no commemorative plates. Most notably, there was no War on Terror. Two white men with "American" names and faces slaughtered 168 people, including 19 children, injured 500, and turned part of Oklahoma City into rubble, but we were not called upon to defeat the Evil Ones.
Instead, our national response to the Oklahoma City bombing was to execute Timothy McVeigh. Terry Nichols, at the very least a co-conspirator and possibly the mastermind of the terrorist act, received a life sentence, though he will also face a state court in Oklahoma.
On the face of it, the harsh sentences of these two men would appear to be the response of an outraged nation. But the execution of McVeigh was an end in itself. It led to no national movement to teach tolerance or to crack down on those who preach terrorism as a solution to problems--be they real or perceived--with the federal government. With McVeigh's execution, the only cause advanced was that of capital punishment.
Then there is the matter of Michael Fortier. Remember him? He knew the Murrah building was going to be bombed, but failed to tell law enforcement officials. He served as a witness for the prosecution, and apologized to the nation for his decision to allow the bombing. Because of these redeeming acts, he was sentence to 12 years in prison. Had he grown marijuana for medicinal purposes in Oklahoma, his recommend sentence would have been 70 years. The popular concept of "personal responsibility," so often touted by elected officials and radio talk show hosts, must have gotten lost in the red tape when it came time to administer justice to Fortier.
What happened on September 11 was horrific, but it was not, as so many have said, "the first time we have experienced terrorism in our land." Neither are Cynthia Tucker's comments about April 19, 1995 accurate. Tucker, usually a thoughtful and intelligent commentator, experienced a bit of memory lapse on this one. Considering the results of September 11, one wonders why she didn't at least refer to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed 6 people and injured a thousand others.
But she also forgot to mention the burning, bombing and defacing of black churches in and around her own city during the last decade. There were 80 churches torched in Atlanta, and 28 in South Carolina, and these figures account for just the fires.
And what about the Olympic bombing at Centennial Park in 1996 that killed one person and left 100 injured?
Or the more than 200 bombings and acts of arson committed against U.S. abortion clinics between 1982 and 1998?
Journalists described the Olympic bomber as a "nutcase" or a "militia member." Those responsible for the destruction of black churches and abortion clinics have generally been referred to as "extremists." Timothy McVeigh was described as "a murderous militiaman," and a "criminal." All of these descriptions are accurate, yet they fail to mark their perpetrators as the terrorists that they are.
In short, terrorism is what people from other countries do to us. As long as the news media and those with political power continue to perpetuate this belief, we will continue to compartmentalize the bombings, burnings, and now the Anthrax threats, as isolated criminal incidents. Even the Oklahoma City incident--unique in that it transcended our national tendency to terrorize only marginalized populations, such as blacks and women--failed to affect the national attitude toward the meaning of terrorism.
It seems doubtful that America will develop enough introspection to see the big terrorism picture. We know now that terrorism isn't something that happens only "over there," yet we are blind to the reality that it has happened repeatedly over here. The heavily armed militia groups, the skinheads, the Ku Klux Klan, The Army of God, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols--all have escaped membership in the Axis of Evil. For all our sophistication, we have done what troubled people and troubled civilizations always do: we have projected all of our unbearable psychological material onto the Other.
The Other is terrifyingly real, without a doubt. But so are the painful, split-off parts of our national Self, and they are just a breath away.