The April bombing in Oklahoma City told us a lot about ourselves and how we respond to adversity. When a bomb destroyed the federal building in that city, politicians and journalists were swift to place the atrocity in some kind of wider context, offering interpretations which ranged from the accurate to the vulgar. In the latter category, we have the “loss of innocence” that has so regularly been announced in American history, from the Great Depression through the years of Vietnam and Watergate. The bomb attack also marked perhaps the hundredth occasion in recent decades on which it was soberly declared that “Terrorism has now come to the United States.” Official interpretations were less informative than the numerous unspoken or unheralded messages, which proved yet again the gross inferiority of the mass media to the public they claim to serve. Few remarked on the continuing religiosity of the American people and their resort to religious institutions at a time of apparent crisis. This outburst of faith is astonishingly different from what might have been expected in comparable circumstances in any nation of Europe or the Pacific Rim. Reactions to the bombing also presented a picture of a surprisingly united American nation, despite all the intercommunal strains of recent years.

While these are values in which conservatives might take comfort, other messages were far more troubling. After an atrocity of this sort, the quest for culprits inevitably taints not just the actual offenders, but any who might be thought to sympathize with them, and the naming of “accomplices” illustrates much about prevailing social prejudices. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing. Arabs and Muslims seemed destined for persecution, but the investigation’s subsequent focus on the radical right drew attention to a wholly different cast of villains. With dazzling speed, the media in the days following the first charges had placed the bombers in a context of “hate groups,” a term which (it now appeared) was synonymous with “armed citizen militias,” “tax protesters,” “survivalists,” and the perennially popular “gun nuts.” “White supremacist” was another handy if inaccurate collective phrase for the assorted dissidents. The implications deserve serious thought. While I find quite ludicrous the image of myself donning fatigues or carrying an assault rifle in a war game in some Midwestern forest, I respect the opinions of those who believe that the United States was founded on the basis of an armed citizenry, to be supplemented by regular forces in time of need. These individuals logically support the fundamental right to bear arms for self-defense, and not merely for “sporting” purposes. While disagreeing with them, I recognize that others have principled objections both to the constitutionality of our present tax system and to the purposes for which the proceeds are used. Others still exercise what they take to be a literally God-given right to live in remote settings where they can pursue their own values free from the demands of a tainted and probably doomed society. All, I now find, are “white supremacists,” “hate groups,” a collective public enemy number one, and the urgent official priority is to remove the weapons with which they seek to terrorize “legitimate” society, and perhaps to limit the insidious propaganda with which such goals are pursued. After Oklahoma City, the right to dissent from many social orthodoxies could be severely circumscribed.

Pace the New York Times and CBS, one does not have to be a right-wing radical to be deeply alarmed at the directions taken by federal law enforcement agencies in the last two decades, mostly under conservative Republican administrations. These trends include the growth of national policing in the guise of “interjurisdictional task forces”; the popular glamorization of informers and traitors; the seizure of property from anyone linked however tenuously to narcotics, generally without a hint of due process; and the increasingly militarized nature of search-and-seizure operations. All, however, are accepted and even lauded because they are directed explicitly against the indefensible—drug dealers, cultists, child molesters, and, henceforward, citizen militias and survivalists irrevocably tainted by a terrorist attack which they did not commit and probably condemned.

What we have witnessed in recent months is a masterly illustration of the power of semantics as a weapon of political control. If a group of quirky religious zealots chooses to live apart, it is a “cult,” and Waco taught us (or so we usually think) that cults are violent groups which might direct their homicidal tendencies either outwardly or against themselves. In either ease, the death of some or all of the “cultists”/”survivalists” is an inevitable and even desirable consequence of their own warped ideology: the more deaths, the more evidence of their fanaticism. In the future, the ritual invocation of Oklahoma City will provide a sanction for virtually any law-enforcement action against any group who can be stigmatized with the various hate/supremacist labels. Moreover, people who feel not the slightest sympathy for worldviews based on racial hatred or supremacy should be aware that the definitions have now shifted substantially, and that zeal for the rights of gun owners places one under suspicion. So, probably, does the “paranoid” suspicion of pervasive corruption within the federal government, the deranged belief that murky secrets remain to emerge about Whitewater or illegal arms supplies to the Middle East.

The Oklahoma incident bore an uncanny resemblance to an attack portioned in the novel The Turner Diaries, a fantasy about the overthrow of the United States government by neo-Nazi fanatics. In the book, so often cited but so rarely read, the horrific terrorist campaign ultimately succeeded because the resulting state repression alienated so many moderates that they joined the revolutionaries. While Oklahoma City was an isolated crime rather than a phase in an ongoing war, is it really in the public interest to portray so many American citizens as fascist goons?