Overnight, the object of America’s fear and anger shifted from the image of foreign zealots bent on making some alien point in Oklahoma City to home-grown fanatics with a made-inAmerica grievance.
After announcing the apprehension Friday of Timothy McVeigh in Perry, Okla., in connection with Wednesday’s bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City - shortly before a second suspect, Terry Nichols, surrendered to police in Herington, Kan. - Attorney General Janet Reno cautioned against reaching any conclusions about the case.
But she said that, at this point, “every evidence indicates that it is domestic in nature.”
Now, the country must confront a different worry, in some ways less frightening, in some ways more so.
Less disconcerting because foreign movements are harder to keep track of, harder to infiltrate and harder to punish than their native counterparts.
More upsetting because the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City demonstrates a quantum leap in the capacities and aggressiveness of domestic fringe hate groups.
“Radical right-wing groups - from the survivalists to the neo-Nazis, the Klan - tend to draw people who don’t fit well into organizations,” noted Jeffrey Kaplan, a historian at Arctic Sivunmun Ilisagvik College in Barrow, Alaska, who studies violent radicalism in the United States.
“They would never make it in the Middle Eastern terrorism game. They are constantly arguing with each other, constantly splitting and forming new groups and changing ideologies.”
And, he added, “The government has fairly thoroughly infiltrated the major radical right-wing groups. They are monitored very closely.”
Overseas, however, the difficulties mount. Lately the Palestinian Hamas group, operating in “an ethos of martyrdom,” has engaged in suicide bombings - “and if they blow themselves up it is devilishly difficult to make an arrest or track down the coconspirators,” Kaplan said.
Dealing with terrorism based abroad drags in foreign policy concerns, presenting complications authorities don’t have to deal with when the suspects are holed up in a compound in Idaho or a cave in New Mexico.
Nothing illustrated that better than Friday’s disclosure that Saudi Arabia - an American ally - two weeks ago refused to allow U.S. authorities to arrest a suspect wanted in two terrorist incidents, including the 1983 Beirut car bombing that killed 241 U.S. servicemen.
Terrorism expert Christopher Joyner of Georgetown University said the indications that Americans were behind the Oklahoma bombing underscored the need for good law enforcement - not more law.
In that regard, he found the pair of arrests a relief. He feared that a foreign involvement in the Oklahoma City assault would have provoked legislation costing all Americans some of their freedoms.
“If these are domestic malcontents who wanted to make some kind of fanatical statement against the government, their acts can be prosecuted under current law,” Joyner said.
He called the swift arrests reassuring - “a powerful commentary on the efficiency of our law enforcement officials when the direction comes from the highest authority.”
Experts spoke cautiously. Little was known about McVeigh and Nichols, or their potential motives, or if they answered to some higher authority.
“If it were Middle East terrorists, the likelihood of it being repeated might be higher, so people might now feel a lot less vulnerable thinking it’s a lone group of disturbed people,” said Douglas Marlowe, a Philadelphia psychologist. On the other hand, he added, “sometimes when violence comes from within, it’s harder to rationalize it and explain it away. People might think, ‘OK it’s more controllable, but it could be my next door neighbor.”’
From the start, President Clinton urged Americans not to point at foreigners. “We should not stereotype anybody,” he implored.
David Little, an expert on ethnic violence at the U.S. Institute of Peace, an independent agency chartered by Congress, said he worried that the anti-government sentiment that characterizes current political life offers cover to “people who are seized by some kind of passion or grudge or resentment” against the government.
“With so much anti-federal talk these days, it couldn’t help but cross my mind that people might be encouraged to target the government,” he said.
On the other hand, he said, religion lately has been a motivator for terrorist acts, a factor at work at abroad and at home, in the Middle East, in Ireland, in the former Yugoslavia - and in the Branch Davidian movement in Waco, Texas.
xxxx The suspects Timothy James McVeigh Age: 26 Captured: Perry, Oklahoma Charges: “Malicious danger and destroying by means of an explosive a building or real property, whole or in part, possessed or used in the United States.” How he was caught: Stopped by an Oklahoma state trooper for driving without a rear license plate on Wednesday morning, 75 minutes after the bomb blast.
Terry Lynn Nichols Age: 39 Surrendered, not yet charged: Gave himself up in Herington, Kan., about 30 miles south of Junction City, Kan., where a Ryder truck used in the bombing was rented, packed and driven 270 miles to the bombing site.
James Douglas Nichols Brother of Terry, questioned, not charged
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