Nearly 21 years ago, Americans were shocked by the sudden carnage in Oklahoma City. A powerful bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building had detonated on a Wednesday morning at 9:02 a.m., taking the lives of 168 people, among them 19 children.
Responding to attacks in Brussels, Paris and elsewhere requires international security cooperation. America’s response to Oklahoma City involved investigators and prosecutors, including Merrick Garland, President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee who had left a highly paid position in private practice to serve the public.
All acts of terrorism are horrific. The Oklahoma City bombing is still the largest domestic terrorist attack in American history, and it was driven by rage against government.
Remembering Oklahoma City should remind us how important it is to preserve what has defined America and made us strong, our commitments to democracy and democratic practices. While we can and indeed should criticize leaders when they get it wrong, we are not each others’ enemies. Political differences should be worked out by discussion, through compromise and in the voting booth.
Four days after these 168 innocents were killed, President Bill Clinton comforted grievers in Oklahoma City and spoke about those killed. Noting the positive contributions of government workers, Clinton pointed to the deaths of people “who worked to help the elderly and the disabled, who worked to support our farmers and our veterans, who worked to enforce our laws and to protect us. Let us say clearly, they served us well, and we are grateful.”
These people were not apart from the community, for they were, Clinton continued, “also neighbors and friends” seen “at church or the PTA meetings, at the civic clubs, at the ballpark.” With these words, mourner-in-chief Clinton humanized bureaucrats and advanced government as a positive force.
The president’s words about antagonism toward government found allies from across the aisle, with conservative Republican writer Bill Kristol saying, “Sweeping denunciation of government in a democracy where, after all, the people ultimately rule isn’t a healthy thing.”
But today we see a turn from respect for our political norms.
Disdain for democratic politics is seen in Donald Trump’s candidacy, with its mix of authoritarianism, contradictory policy positions and comfort with political violence. Last weekend Trump’s own campaign manager, who had grabbed a reporter hard enough to leave bruises, was caught on video grabbing a protester at an Arizona rally.
In the same rally, a Trump supporter sucker-punched another protester, knocked him down and kicked him. Other protestors have been assaulted after Trump told his supporters, “Knock the hell out of them. I promise I will pay for the legal fees. I promise.”
Trump has won more delegates than other Republicans so far, but may not get the majority he needs to win the nomination on the first ballot of the Republican National Convention. What’s going on behind the scenes is chilling.
State-level Republican heads and the national party’s leaders will play a role in seating delegates and determining the rules under which it proceeds. How has Trump acted? “Instead of calling all 168 members of the Republican National Committee last year or forging at least quiet alliances with state chairs, Trump’s ‘campaign continually harassed and cajoled dozens of state chairs into staying silent, holding the loss of business relationships or donors over their heads,’” a state GOP chairman told reporter Marc Ambinder. In other words, Trump’s people have stooped to blackmail.
This suggests how a President Trump would behave toward his political opponents, threatening their livelihoods, similar to Gov. Paul LePage preventing House Speaker Mark Eves from getting a job he had been offered.
Kristol, who 21 years ago spoke up against those who see government as the enemy, is now so aghast at Trump and his campaign that he is trying to find a way to run a conservative candidate as an independent should Trump win the Republican nomination.
It should not be extraordinary that Bill Clinton and Bill Kristol came together in 1995 to criticize violence and defend representative governance, for those are, after all, some of our core values. We live in a period when distrust toward government is high, with an angry strain shot through our political life, and we must defend democratic life again from threats, blackmail, harassment and physical attacks.