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Don’t Lose Civil Rights In Backlash

Sandy Grady Knight-Ridder

Days after the explosion, the images on television are igniting a powerful counterblast of national anger.

No more Oklahoma Cities!

Stop the next mad bombers! Stomp out the militia nuts! Take the handcuffs off the FBI! Crack down!

Symbols rolling across TV screens create fury and impatience - maybe hysteria.

Over and over we see that shattered tomb of the Oklahoma City federal building. Its gutted ghost haunts our nights. We see the wounded, the funerals, the exhausted fire crews.

And faces of dead children.

Flick, we watch the Michigan Militia strutting with camouflage suits and AK-47s. Beer-gut commandos say they “understand” why somebody hates the U.S. government enough to blow up 100, 200 people.

Then we hear the politicians spout instant answers.

Whether it’s Bill Clinton (usually a rock through this crisis) or Republicans running for the ‘96 grail, their war cry’s the same:

“We’ve got to strike back at terrorism. Untie the hands of the FBI. Give it the authority to prevent another Oklahoma City tragedy.”

Sounds neat: Pass an anti-terrorism bill in Congress, give the FBI new muscle to investigate extremist bands, and presto, no more Oklahoma-City-style disasters.

Time out for reality.

Myth No. 1 prevailing since the Oklahoma explosion is that the FBI’s “hands are tied” in combating terrorism - that the agency can’t spy on violent groups without evidence of a crime. “Why can’t you penetrate a group, determine its members, its firepower, its connections to other groups?” Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., asked at a Senate anti-terror hearing. “Before there’s a … crime, couldn’t you have someone join, report to the FBI?”

“Yes, you can put in informants, collect information, even before there’s indication of a crime,” said Jamie Gorelick, deputy attorney general.

Why then was the FBI caught in the dark about the militia movement to which presumed bomber Timothy McVeigh was once connected?

Grudgingly, FBI Director Louis Freeh admitted the agency hasn’t been using its legal clout - unchanged since 1975 guidelines - because of political nervousness.

“There was a clear consensus that domestic intelligence had been abused in the 1960s and 1970s. There was a political change,” said Freeh. “FBI employees had been criticized. Agents on the street became defensive.”

So the political nostrum - unleash the FBI, give it more authority - comes up phony. The agency has legal tools. It needs only a sense of mission.

Other hollow post-explosion myths: That a more aggressive Justice Department could have caught the bomber before he lit the fuse. Or tougher anti-terror laws will automatically make the U.S. safer.

“We cannot guarantee we can prevent this tragedy from happening again,” said Attorney General Janet Reno. “We see no indication that (new FBI guidelines) would have avoided this.”

“No law will stop madness,” admitted Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., weary from funerals.

But TV images from Oklahoma City are too raw. Emotions run high to crack the whip on villains. The most threatening targets are those gun-toting, government-hating militia groups.

“If they’re armed bands advocating violence, we should crack down, outlaw them,” said Morris Dees, whose Southern Law Project researches the right-wing outfits.

Never mind that militias, spread over 26 states, come in wildly varying ideological factions. Some hate taxes, some are furious at the Waco raid and Randy Weaver shootout, some just love their guns.

“If you have an indiscriminate crackdown,” warns terrorist expert Brian Jenkins, “you validate their paranoia and challenge them to open warfare.”

More sarcastically, war hero Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., said, “They’re boys with toys whose testosterone is slipping. If they want to run around the woods, shirts out to hide beer bellies, OK. If they want to make war, shut ‘em down.”

Make no mistake, though. The explosion has changed the American psyche - maybe dangerously swinging the pendulum into another security-mad cycle.

Are we going back to the 1920s Red Scare when Attorney General Mitchell Palmer jailed thousands on suspicion? Or Joe McCarthy’s 1950s anti-Commie paranoia? Or the 1960s, when the FBI infiltrated the anti-Vietnam War movement, raided Black Panthers and spied outrageously on Martin Luther King Jr.?

I don’t want to live through that era again.

Take care. Oklahoma City’s horror will be doubled if it edges us toward a police state.

Terrorists win if we bring back the cackling ghost of J. Edgar Hoover.


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