I do not know about the rest of you, but I can say where I was in the days leading up to April 19, I had been in Scotland in the preceding week, and on April 17, I was in a hotel in Dumbarton, not 20 miles from the Glasgow airport. Exhausted from a day of driving in the rain, I threw myself down on the bed and turned on the television to get a last glimpse of international news not scripted entirely by the U.S. State Department, What I found, instead, was one of the lesser James Bond movies, A View to a Kill, in which 007 foils a plot to detonate an explosion along a major fault line, thus causing a catastrophic earthquake.
I do not know whether or not, even in theory, such a thing is possible, but the bomb that blew a hole in the federal office building in Oklahoma City on April 19 has opened social and political fissures that seem wider every day. On one side stand all the liberal, respectable people pointing their fingers at the hate-mongers who have dared to criticize the government—and standing with them, it must be said, are most of the frightened hate-mongers themselves—and on the other side a chorus of angry Middle Americans responding to the cries of “Oklahoma” with an antiphonal chant of “Waco” and “Ruby Ridge.”
Listening to the radio in the weeks after the event, I became convinced that these two different sets of Americans inhabit parallel universes. On the right lunatic fringe, the talk was all of the mysterious government helicopter that was supposedly seen just before the blast. Caller after caller to Bob Grant implied that the Oklahoma City bombing is the Reichstag fire of the New World Order, and the level of detailed (surprisingly accurate) information on the criminal activities of the CIA, FBI, and BATF gave the callers an air of calm reasonableness that is encountered only in intelligent paranoids.
Much of the information comes undoubtedly from science fiction and urban folklore, but the paranoid view of the American government is widely held by people who know what is happening; how children are snatched from their parents by feminist prosecutors like Janet Reno, who terrorize the children or the mother into testifying to abuses that never took place; how drug enforcement agents invade houses, tear them apart, looking for an excuse to confiscate the property they have already inventoried; how innocent and legal gunowners are harassed and persecuted by agents of the BATP” who shoot first and ask questions later; how hard-metal fanatics get put on trial for treason, because they prefer to use gold in their transactions. Why worry about the U,N. training Gurkhas in Montana, when our own government is handing out a 00 license-to-kill to any bureaucrat with an itchy finger?
On the left border of the lunatic fringe were the President and his friends, leaping at the chance to condemn anyone who had ever spoken the word “Whitewater,” anyone who had ever imagined there might be something funny about the death of Vincent Foster (and so many other accident-prone FOB’s), A John Doe warrant was issued, both by the President and by his loyal columnists, against anyone who thinks that we might have too many taxes and too few guns. On one level, of course, the President’s calls for a crackdown may represent nothing more sinister than cynical opportunism, a chance to tar his Republican opponents with terrorism, a last desperate attempt to salvage his failed administration.
If that is what Mr, Clinton thinks, he is mistaken. Oklahoma City will turn out to be his Gulf War, a badly timed campaign stunt that tugged at the heartstrings until they broke. When all the yellow ribbons have been bleached by the summer sun, Bill Clinton will still be Bill Clinton, and the only chance he has for a second term lies in the hands of the Republican Party. If the GOP cannot find a better candidate than Robert Dole (many Americans suspect that Ronald Reagan was already senile when he was younger than Mr. Dole is now), Phil Gramm (whatever charisma is. Senator Gramm has the antidote), or Colin Powell (kiss off the angry white male vote), then the President has a fighting chance for another four years in which he can continue to protect himself from prosecution. Under similar circumstances Julius Caesar first invaded Gaul and then used his army to wage a civil war and subjugate his people. Fortunately, if Mr. Clinton has no more scruples than Julius, he has neither the genius nor the courage of a world conqueror. Arkansas was just about his size.
To realize how good a chance Clinton really has, you only have to consider the Republican response to the bombing: a somewhat muted echo of the President’s outrage against militias (which have not been connected in any plausible way with the explosion) and “hate” groups. It is, apparently, a thoughtcrime to dislike the rich or resent strangers; and, if the President has his way, it will soon be lèse majesté to believe that the government is infringing our liberties. The Democrats are demanding (not asking) that Congress restore the FBI’s Gestapo powers, and the Republicans will only go three-fourths of the way with them. In the Republican version the FBI will be able to snoop and spy only on really dangerous subversives, like members of the National Rifle Association or fans of G. Gordon Liddy.
Here we go again. A new round of right-baiting to answer an earlier round of red-baiting. Lincoln jailed his critics on the charge they were Southern sympathizers; Wilson locked up the Wobblies as traitors because they had printed antiwar tracts—before American entrance into World War I; Franklin Roosevelt went after German-Americans, did everything he could to destroy the careers and reputations of such critics as Charles Lindbergh and John Flynn, and in a great travesty of justice Lawrence Dennis, the mulatto reactionary, was tried for treason because lie had accused FDR of fighting fascism abroad in order to impose it at home. As Phil Jenkins indicates elsewhere in this issue, what is usually called McCarthyism is just a fine old American custom of repressing dissent that goes back, at least, to the Alien and Sedition Acts.
The Federalist Party, knowing it was losing ground against Jefferson, wanted the power to deport critics and shut down opposition presses as they smeared the Republicans as bloodthirsty Jacobins. (The Republicans gave as good as they got and accused plain John Adams of monarchical ambitions.) The Federalists pretended to believe that Jefferson was another Robespierre plotting a Reign of Terror against the rich. The obvious connection between the Jacobin Terror and modern terrorism seems lost on political commentators who are looking for Muslim extremists and white supremacists in every car parked within a mile of a public building. But terrorism is primarily, preeminently practiced by governments and not by individuals or dedicated bands of fanatics. I do not want to minimize the evils done by the Brigate Rosse in Italy or the Baader-Mcinhof gang in Germany, but in many cases the worst terrorist groups are encouraged or even sponsored by governments. The Soviet Union, for example, has backed Muslim terrorists in the Middle East and communist guerrillas in Latin America, just as the United States has given support, not always covert, to Central American death squads. Terrorist groups are, for the most part, little surrogate armies used as unwitting mercenaries by national governments. Israelis scream bloody murder when Arab terrorists attack them, but they are silent, even defensive about their own terrorists. My father always used to say that organized crime could be shut down, if its friends in business and politics (Barry Goldwater and the Kennedys, for example) would quit protecting the Mafia. Perhaps he was wrong, but there would be no international terrorism without the support of national governments who find their services convenient.
The record of death and destruction racked up by the worst terrorist groups is a mere grain of sand compared with the vast Sahara of government terrorism practiced both by revolutionary regimes, such as the Jacobins, communists, and Nazis, by constitutional monarchies like England (the extermination of the Tasmanians. the Irish potato famine, the terror-bombings of Dresden, Hanover), and by such democracies as the United States (the Sand Creek Massacre against the Cheyenne, Sherman’s march to the sea, the nuclear terrorism at Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Americans say they are terrified lest some lunatic in China or North Korea get hold of atomic weapons. Why? The only lunatic who ever used them was an American President, and the stupid controversy over the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit reveals that if liberals hate their country, the conservatives are still in the phase that pop psychologists describe as denial.
A people that will not admit its mistakes is condemned to justify them. From time to time, we and our parents and their parents have acquiesced in the slaughter of innocent people, the waging of unjustified wars, and the suppression of every liberty guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Periodically we go on a binge of self-recrimination over some no longer relevant episode—the internment of Japanese during World War II or the Cherokee Trail of Tears—and in pointing the finger at other people we can feel good about our own moral superiority, but to acknowledge the crimes on which our regime is based—that cuts a little too close to the bone.
I do not know what actually happened in Oklahoma City, and, in one sense, I hardly care. People die every day. I am sorry for it, but they do. Sometimes hundreds of Americans die in a plane crash. They are all strangers, and I eat a hearty dinner and go to bed with an unclouded conscience. Thousands of people may be slaughtered in Rwanda, and, if pressed, I may mutter a “tsk tsk,” but what are these strangers to me, really? We weep readily over the death of a pet cat, but which of us sheds tears for the tens of thousands of babies murdered every day by their own mothers? Anyone who does (unless he is a saint) is either a hypocrite or a madman. All this shock and national mourning was a disgusting mixture of sentimental cant and hysterical weakness. If we needed no other evidence that television is an unmitigated evil, we had only to watch the evening news, as the networks vied with each other in whipping up sympathy for dead babies. What kind of a people are we, who can exploit the suffering of children? In the 1960’s cynical civil rights leaders put children at the front of their marches, and I can foresee a time when political contests will be waged by competing videos, one side flashing pictures of aborted fetuses, the other side showing footage of child abuse and victims of right-wing terrorism.
The divisions in American opinion after the April 19 bombing do not follow the well-traveled interstate highway routes marked by Republican and Democrat road signs. Many conventional conservatives have been content to ignore the Waco massacre and profess shock and anger at the militant groups the FBI expects to find under their beds, and the most sensible comment on Oklahoma City I have run across came from Alex Cockburn in The Nation, who points out that it is only on the far right that you can find any compassion for the victims at Waco.
The most obvious divides are probably between the urban-suburban population of the Northeast and the rural-small town folk of the South and West—the Midwest as usual cannot make up its mind which side it is on. People close to the site, particularly the residents of Oklahoma City, are naturally outraged by what they see as an attack not so much on the feds as on themselves, but in the rest of the West and South, you can hear a swelling chorus of angry Americans who are smart enough to know that one explosion does not change anything. Their suspicions were immediately aroused by the President’s claim that the federal government is not planning to deprive us of our constitutional liberties.
That, as every liberal knows, is a bare-faced lie. Liberals have been telling us since the beginning of this century that we have to sacrifice some of our peculiar liberties in order for them to make this country more just, humane, and progressive. To be a reactionary, in this context, was to resist the tide of history, to defend the individual against the state, families against social agencies, states against the central government. The only argument has been over whether this “progress” is good or bad, just or unjust. Even the constitutional argument has been a sham, since liberals will argue in almost the same breath that the Constitution is not being violated and that it is a historical curiosity, which long ago lost its relevance. As I have said before, there are honest leftists and honest reactionaries, but there is no such thing as an honest liberal.
It was clear, more than a year before the bombing, that regionalism is reemerging as a major factor in American polities. The West, as Chilton Williamson has been reporting in our pages, is up in arms again over the federal government’s many abuses of power. I say “again” not just because of the Sagebrush Rebellion of the late 1970’s, but because the West, wherever it happens to be, is almost always angry at the East. Even before the Revolution, the Carolina Regulators were at war with the aristocrats in the East, and not long after independence, Westerners staged Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion as antigovernment protests. There has never been a time when the West was not on the point of rebellion, and if the next revolution has to begin somewhere, it is fitting that the symbolic trigger should be pulled in Oklahoma. Oklahoma has always been an American metaphor. The last great land rush took place there, giving the state its earlier identity as the home of rugged and enterprising homesteaders who thumbed their noses at Eastern civilization. This was more than half myth, since the Homestead Acts were an early welfare scam designed to buy votes and enrich the railroads.
During the Dustbowl, the Okie, his farm foreclosed by the bank, became the rural victim par excellence. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck used a family of Okies, the Joads, to illustrate the helplessness of ordinary Americans under the oppression of the bankers and the government they owned. But for Steinbeck, the Okie was a symbol, also, of militant resistance, and he makes his Preacher Casy into a Christian Joe Hill. This theme of resistance was picked up by a middle-class radical songwriter named Woody Guthrie, who wrote “Tom Joad” as a ballad version of Steinbeck’s novel and an even more militant song on the career of “Prettyboy Floyd the outlaw, Oklahoma knew him well.” Guthrie concludes his paean to Pretty Boy with the verses:
Well, it’s through this world
I’ve rambled; I’ve seen lots of funny men;
some will rob you with a six-gun,
some with a fountain pen.
When it’s through this world you’ll ramble,
and it’s through this world you’ll roam,
you won’t never see an outlaw
rob a family of their home.
Guthrie justified Floyd’s criminal career on two grounds: the grotesque disparity between the very rich and the rest of us and the tyranny exercised by the armed hirelings of the rich. Prettyboy became a criminal only after he had been antagonized by an arrogant Deputy Sheriff who insulted him and used coarse language in front of his wife: “Pretty Boy grabbed a logchain, the deputy grabbed a gun, and in the fight that followed, he laid that deputy down.” He portrays the outlaw as another Robin Hood or Jesse James, who robbed from rich bankers and gave to the poor: “And many a starving farmer the same old story told, how the outlaw paid their mortgage and saved their little home.” This is the sort of leftist protest song we used to hear, when there was a left in America.
By the 60’s, however, the American leftists had become so upper-middle-classified that their primary issues were maintaining draft deferments for white suburban college boys, creating rights for college-educated women and interior decorators, and enforcing the Sierra Club environmentalism that sends working men to the unemployment office. If there was a Woody Guthrie of the 60’s and 70’s it was Merle Haggard, the “Okie from Muskogee” (actually Bakersfield, California), a patriotic car thief who despised both sets of Eastern liberals—the draft-card burners who betrayed their country in wartime and the patriotic stockjobbers who would sell it to the highest bidders.
Resistance to the regime is always strongest in the hinterlands, because the people of the cities are either cowed or coopted by their education and their habits of dependence. A few weeks before the bombing, gunowners and populists were gleefully anticipating the passage of concealed-carry permits in several states, but in the wave of antigun paranoia that swept the country, those bills were dropped, but not for long, if the President and his friends know what is good for them. If this nation is to be preserved in anything like its present form, then the vast apparatus of bribery and coercion we call the federal government must be reduced to its dimensions of 60 or 70 or 100 years ago. We have all been corrupted by government, but there remains a militant minority that is convinced that we could solve our problems, if the federal government would only stay in Washington. As Steinbeck’s Tom Joad explained to his mother, the people would be all right if only the government would leave them alone:
I been thinking how it was in that gov’ment camp, how
our folks took care a theirselves, an’ if they was a fight
they fixed it theirself; an’ they wasn’t no cops waggling
their guns, but they was better order than them cops ever
give. I been a-wonderin’ why we can’t do that all over.
Throw out the cops that ain’t our people. All work
together for our own thing—all farm our own land.
This is neither communism nor anarchism; it is only what most Americans wanted in 1776—to throw out not all the police, but only “the cops that ain’t our people”—and it is all that any sensible American wants today, including the poor fools in militias and separatist sects, eco-freak communards and gunnut survivalists, black nationalists and white supremacists alike. If they cannot get it, if no one is to be left in peace to go crazy in his own way, to rear his own children and cleave unto his own gods, then we are in for a great deal more trouble than is dreamt of even in the nightmares at FBI and BATF headquarters. The strategy of the federal cops is to make examples of a few designated leaders; kill David Koresh or Gordon Kahl and leave the carcass to stink on the front pages of the morning paper like a dead rabbit nailed to a garden fence post. For all any of us will ever know, some kind of federal cop is behind the shootings of George Wallace, Malcolm X, and every other uppity cracker, nigger, wop, or greaser who dared to look his betters in the face. The authorities love racial conflict; they do everything they can to provoke it, because if we fight each other, we cannot turn our attention to them.
Perhaps the convenient assassinations that adorn American history (the honest Garfield, for example, or McKinley the reluctant imperialist) were just lucky accidents, like the bombing in Oklahoma City, but for every future accident there may be a martyr—like Steinbeck’s Preacher Casy whose murder turns Tom Joad into a revolutionary: “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. . . . An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.”
All we ask is to be let alone, as a defender of the American union once declared, to eat the stuff we raise and live in the houses we build. Restore the Constitution, and there will be peace; take the occupying army of judges and federal marshals out of our schools and neighborhoods, and no one will hate the government. But, keep up the march step toward universal empire, and this nation will continue to split along fault lines that go deeper than anyone imagined in Bosnia 1985 or in the United States in 1995. Devolution or revolution, those are the only choices that lie before us.