The sight of an Idaho National Guard helicopter on a routine training flight sends rural militia members running for their guns, ready to repel a government attack.
Tape recordings show that members of the Branch Davidian sect set fire to their own compound in Waco, Texas, yet countless Americans still believe federal agents deliberately started the blaze that killed more than 80, including 25 children.
A bomb made of fertilizer and fuel oil kills more than 100 people at a federal building in Oklahoma City, and some Americans in town meetings and on computer bulletin boards say they think the government itself set the bomb.
The paranoid reactions of extremists? Obviously. But a sizable number of Americans share a core belief that fuels those extremists, namely that the government, their government, is their enemy.
Nearly four out of 10 Americans believe the federal government threatens their freedom, according to a recent poll by CNN and USA Today. Only one out of 10 has faith in the government, according to the Yankelovich Monitor. On a recent show of ABC’s “Nightline,” more than a dozen residents of Decker, Mich., raised their hands when asked whether the government itself may have planned the Oklahoma City bombing.
The National Rifle Association warned members in a recent newsletter that the recent ban on assault weapon “gives jack-booted government thugs more power to … break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us. … In Clinton’s administration, if you have a badge, you have the government’s go-ahead to … murder law-abiding citizens.”
Similarly, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., a veteran member of Congress, this year described the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which staged the initial raid in Waco, as “jack-booted American fascists. They have shown no concern over the rights of ordinary citizens.”
For decades, Americans have been unified by their common enemies - the Depression, fascism, communism. But with the end of the Cold War, many Americans have turned on their own government.
Last November, that anger fueled the Republican takeover of Congress. Today, a major Republican candidate for president, former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, loosely equates the federal government with the former Soviet Union. One was the “evil empire,” he says in his stock campaign speech, and the other the “arrogant empire.”
“One down and one to go,” he says.
But the angst about the U.S. government has been simmering for a generation.
It was fed in part by a growing distrust of a government detached from the will of the people in episodes like the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. And it was fueled by a government that sought to extend its reach.
“Starting with Watergate, people started to lose faith in government,” said Diana Owen, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington.
“We’ve never picked up from there, it’s just gotten worse.”
Through the 1970s, Americans were bombarded with bad or disappointing news about their government. About a government that spied on anti-war protesters or civil rights activists. A government with “enemies lists” made up of its own citizens. A government incapable of getting hostages out of Iran or gasoline to the corner service station.
Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, Owen said, about the only message out of Washington, through political campaigns and the news media, is bad news about corruption and waste and incompetence. Ronald Reagan rode to the presidency on a message that the federal government was the problem.
“We’re in a spiral of negativity,” said Owen.
But since the 1960s, we also have been in a time when the federal government has been extending its reach, from enforcing civil rights, to regulations to protect the environment and workers’ safety, to new laws to restrict gun ownership.
“We’re over-regulated,” said political scientist Marvin Alisky of Arizona State University.
He said the growth of federal regulations were undertaken “often with good intentions,” particularly those aimed at protecting the environment. He conceded that “we certainly have a need to protect our air and water.”
But he said many regulations are too ambitious, too ill-considered and too damaging.
“Only the most ardent, self-denying bureaucrat would deny that we’re over-regulated,” he said.
Groups of Americans often have chafed under the rule of the federal government, particularly when the government has forced local or narrow interests to change for a national purpose.
Many Southern whites loathed the government that forced them to integrate their schools and lunch counters. Draft-age men took to the streets when the government wanted them to fight in Vietnam. Westerners howl when the government tells them they cannot cut timber on federal land.
Sometimes, the national interest invoked by the federal government has come to win almost universal acceptance, as in equality for minorities. And sometimes the national interest has come under even greater scrutiny, as in the Vietnam War. Only weeks ago, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara published a book saying he participated in sending 58,000 Americans to their deaths in Southeast Asia, despite feeling at the time that the strategy was wrong.
Ironically, it was a wounded veteran of that war, Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., who gave an impassioned defense of the federal government.
“The idea that the government of the United States oppresses you as an individual is nonsense,” he told a National Press Club audience Thursday. “You’ve got more freedom in this country than any other country on Earth, and it makes me sick to my stomach every time you open your mouth yapping about all the problems that you’ve got.”