President Clinton, in a stern message to extremists, Friday condemned those groups that embrace and defend the use of violence as wrongheaded, evil and “un-American.”
“If you appropriate our sacred symbols for paranoid purposes and compare yourself to colonial militias who fought for the democracy you now rail against, you are wrong,” Clinton said during the commencement address at Michigan State University.
“How dare you suggest that we in the freest nation on earth live in tyranny? How dare you call yourself patriots and heroes?” Clinton said, in his strongest remarks yet on the matter. “There is nothing patriotic about hating your country … there is nothing heroic about turning your back on America.”
Militant antigovernment groups here, such as the Michigan Militia, have gained national attention because of links to Timothy McVeigh, the main suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing.
McVeigh is a friend of James and Terry Nichols, brothers who have been charged with conspiring with McVeigh to make explosive devices at a farmhouse in Decker, Mich., about 85 miles away from here. The brothers had attended meetings of the Michigan Militia but have been disavowed by the group.
Small groups of like-minded paramilitary have organized in dozens of states, afraid that the U.S. government is plotting to turn the nation over to unnamed enemies.
Seizing the opportunity offered by a long-planned visit here to make one of the more dramatic speeches of his presidency, Clinton spoke stirringly to a crowd of 35,000 of rights and freedoms and the meaning of patriotism in these troubled times. He deplored the paranoia of right-wing extremists and hailed the hope and faith and hard work of “the real … heroes” of everyday American life.
The 20th century was marked by the “millions of lives lost in wars between nations, and in efforts by totalitarian dictatorships to stamp out the light of liberty among their subjects,” Clinton said. Victory in two world wars and the Cold War may have left the world poised before a century of wondrous possibilities, Clinton said, but he warned that the free movements of people and knowledge and technology in a changing world also “contain a dark underside.
“The dark possibilities of our age are visible now in the smoke, the horror and the heartbreak of Oklahoma City,” Clinton said.
The president marked the end of rescue efforts in Oklahoma by intoning “165 dead, 467 injured and two still unaccounted for.” He warned his audience of Michigan State University graduates and their families that “appeasement of organized evil is not an option for the next century any more than it was in this century.
“No one is free in an America where parents have to worry when they drop off their children for day care, or when you are the target of assassination simply because you work for our government.”
Do people who work for the government sometimes make mistakes? Of course they do. They are human. Almost every American has some experience with … a rude tax collector, an arbitrary regulator, an insensitive social worker, an abusive law officer.
“But our Constitution was established by Americans determined to limit those abuses,” Clinton said. “Freedom of political speech will never justify violence - never.”
Clinton recalled a “painful personal experience” when he was governor of Arkansas - learning that an Arkansas state trooper and a sheriff, “friends of mine,” had been killed by right-wing extremists.
“There is no right to resort to violence when you don’t get your way. There is no right to kill people. There is no right to kill people who are doing their duty, or minding their own business, or children who are innocent in every way,” Clinton said to applause.
Along with right-wing extremists, Clinton also condemned “the Weathermen of the radical left who resorted to violence” in the 1960s and “gang members who use life on the mean streets of America, as terrible as it is, to justify taking … innocent life.”
The “real American heroes,” Clinton told the graduates, “are the citizens who get up every morning and have the courage to work hard and play by the rules: the mother who stays up the extra half hour after a long day’s work to read her child a story; the rescue worker who digs with his hands in the rubble as the building crumbles about him; the neighbor who lives side-by-side with people different from herself; the government worker who quietly and efficiently labors … and most of all, the parent who works long years for modest pay and sacrifices so that his or her children can have the education that you have had.”
The Michigan Militia do not represent the real America, nor “the real Michigan,” Clinton said.
“The real Michigan is in this stadium today. The real Michigan is Michigan State. It’s the astonishing revival of the automobile industry … the real Michigan is Kellogg’s corn flakes and the best cherries in the world,” Clinton said.
Clinton called on the MSU graduates to remember the sacrifices of previous generations, who fought and won the Cold War and World War II.
“Remember the blood and sweat and triumph that enabled us to come to this, the greatest moment of possibility in our history,” Clinton said. “Redeem once again the promise of America.”