Fifteen years ago, a deranged anti-government extremist named Timothy McVeigh set off a truck bomb below the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 children under the age of six. In a speech delivered at the Center for American Progress Action Fund today, President Clinton drew eerily parallels between that incident and the current atmosphere of right-wing, anti-government hatred.
He specifically pointed to the influence of right-wing media in the 90s, saying that those hate radio hosts “understood clearly that emotion was more powerful than reason most of the time, and it happened that they got much bigger listenership, and more advertisers, and more commercial success, if they kept people in the white heat.” People like Timothy McVeigh were “highly vulnerable to the suggestions and implications of the most militant rhetoric of the time.” Both media and politicians therefore need to be responsible in their rhetoric since it falls on the “serious and the delirious alike”:
We can’t let the debate veer so far into hatred that we lose focus of our common humanity. It’s really important. We can’t ever fudge the fact that there’s a basic line dividing criticism from violence or its advocacy, and that the closer you get to the line and the more responsibility you have, you have to think about the echo chamber in which your words resonate. […]
But what we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or we should reduce our passion for the positions that we hold, but the words we use really do matter because there are — there’s this vast echo chamber, and they go across space, and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike. They fall on the connected and the unhinged alike. And I am not trying to muzzle anybody, but one of the things that the conservatives have always brought to the table in America is that no law can replace personal responsibility. And the more power you have, and the more influence you have, the more responsibility you have.
In 1995, McVeigh’s targets were federal employees. In the past year, there has also been a suicide attack of an IRS building in Texas, a shooting of officers at the Pentagon, and threats of violence against Census workers. Clinton stressed that there’s a difference between criticizing a policy and demonizing a whole class of government workers, and the latter should be unacceptable after the Oklahoma City bombing:
Oklahoma City proved that beyond the law, there is no freedom, and there is a difference between criticizing a policy or a politician, and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedoms and the public servants who implement them. And the more prominence you have in politics or media or some other pillar of public life, the more you have to keep that in mind. I acknowledged that in my political career, I had more on than one occasion, in the face of a government policy I disagreed with or a practice that I thought was insensitive, referred in a disparaging way generally to “federal bureaucrats,” as if all of them were arrogant or insensitive or unresponsive, and I have never done it again. You could not read the stories of the lives of the people who perished in Oklahoma City and not respond in that way.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) is one elected official who consistently demonizes federal employees. In an interview with the New York Times, Clinton took direct aim at her, saying “They are not gangsters. They were elected. They are not doing anything they were not elected to do.” Clinton said people involved with “hatriot” groups like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters may take the wrong lessons from irresponsible rhetoric. “Ninety-nine percent of them will never do anything they shouldn’t do, but there are people who advocate violence and anticipate violence,” he warned.
Clinton also said he welcomed the Tea Parties, but pointed out that they really don’t bear any relation to the actual Boston Tea Party. “It was about no taxation without representation,” he said. “It was not about representation by people you didn’t vote for and didn’t agree with, but can vote out in the next election.” He also warned them that their anger may backfire, since “when you get mad, sometimes you end up producing the exact reverse result of what you say you are for.” Watch some highlights of Clinton’s speech:
Indeed, Mark Potok, intelligence project director at the Southern Poverty Law Center says that the climate today “feels a lot like the run-up to Oklahoma City.” Stephen Jones, who defended McVeigh, also said that he agrees the right-wing movement is gaining strength, although there aren’t now the “galvanizing events” — like in Waco and Ruby Ridge — that inspired the violence 15 years ago.