April 21, 1995 in City

Anger Boils Out Of The Wreckage

Sandy Grady Knight-Ridder
 

For once Bill Clinton spoke and nobody could bicker over his words.

“These people are killers and must be treated like killers,” said Clinton, trembling with fury.

Yes, dammit, yes.

Shrinks say a terrorist act like the Oklahoma City blast is supposed to fill us with anxiety, dread of strangers, certainly nervousness about hanging around federal buildings.

Wrong.

First there’s blood-boiling anger.

Twenty, 80, 100 … the Oklahoma City casualty count keeps climbing.

But those toddlers and infants blown up in the innocence of their day-care center wipe out all detachment.

What kind of political hatred is worth the death of a child?

What would make someone load a van with the equivalent of 1,000 pounds of dynamite, exquisitely timed to massacre children on a sunny morning?

“The people who did this are animals,” said Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, standing in front of the rubble.

Yes, dammit, yes.

At the White House podium, stern-faced Attorney General Janet Reno rattled off the federal code.

“Eighteen USC, Section 847,” said Reno, reciting a new law calling for the death penalty when a federal building is blown up, causing fatalities.

“And we will certainly seek it.”

Even those of us who have doubted the morality or deterrence of the death penalty must admit Reno and Clinton are right.

A crime as heinous as Oklahoma City’s massacre is beyond civility.

Catch ‘em, turn on the juice.

Something changed inside the American pysche a little after 9 a.m., April 19, 1995, with that roar of exploding steel, concrete and flesh.

Horror had come home, delivered by wackos whose ferocity was a mystery.

Why us?

“Something like this happens on television, not at home,” said a numbed, bloodied young Oklahoma City man on CNN.

“Nobody’s safe anywhere now,” said a young woman.

Oh, we’ve seen pictures from Baghdad and Beirut and Hanoi and Belfast and London. Those blast-torn buildings were in another world. After all, the United States had been untouched by war for 130 years.

Between a Wall Street explosion and the World Trade Center blast, 70 years with no major bombings. Even the World Trade Center detonation seemed in character - violent, weird stuff happens in New York City.

But Oklahoma?

Hey, it’s a blue-collar, just-folks state where the corn grows as high as an elephant’s eye, Will Rogers learned to lasso, and the only tragedies were Oklahoma Sooner defeats.

“This is the peaceful middle of America,” said Gov. Keating. “Why pick on us?”

“The World Trade Center bombing broke a taboo,” said terrorist expert Brian Jenkins. “I predicted there would be a copycat effect. Now we may see a third event.”

In Washington, as Clinton and officials watched Oklahoma City scenes crawl across TV screens, worry was stark: Will the Imperial City be the next terror target?

Sure, since the Lebanon car-bombing of Marines in the Reagan era, Washington’s girded the White House and Capitol with stone blockades. Now the FBI building was a buttoned-up fortress. Everywhere, bomb-sniffing dogs checked cars.

Ah, there’s the irony:

The U.S. has spent billions on defense against nuclear weapons flying from Russia.

Republicans want more money for Star Wars.

But the Oklahoma City blast shows the greatest threat is from nut-cases driving a rented van full of homemade bang-bang.

“There’s no real defense,” admits expert Jenkins.

Sure, we’ll see more cops, more metal detectors, more concrete barriers, probably the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.

Oklahoma City changed our mood: We’re no different from Baghdad or Beirut or Belfast, vulnerable to deadly nuttiness we don’t understand.

“Evil, cowardly men,” says Clinton. You want him to use earthier obscenities.

Something didn’t change, though: The poise, humanity and guts of Oklahoma City people we saw climbing through debris for the injured, covering the dead, giving blood.

Still the best country in the world in a jam.

Even madmen who blow up children can’t strip that away.

xxxx


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