May 10, 1995
Alan W. Dowd

All available evidence indicates that the two-ton bomb that exploded in front of an Oklahoma City federal office building, killing at least 150 Americans and injuring hundreds more, was constructed and planted by a handful of radical right-wing anarchists. This premeditated mass-murder has touched-off a firestorm of debate over the course that should be taken to fight domestic terrorism and to counter the anti-establishment militia organizations with which the bombers were affiliated. The President last month outlined his position in a counter-terrorism policy initiative, which the Congress will enshrine into law in the coming weeks. The initiative addresses some key gaps in America’s defense against terrorism of all kinds. However, some aspects of the initiative are excessive, and the problem of anti-government militancy remains un-addressed.

Reforms in the FBI’s investigative powers comprise the spine of the President’s counter-terrorism initiative. These will have a positive effect on deterrence and apprehension, should deterrence fail. Among these positive aspects of the proposal are the following:

*The creation of a special counter-terrorism fund The FBI could draw on the fund to offer logistics and personnel support during crises sparked by terrorist threats or terrorist acts;

*The formation of a multi-agency Domestic Counter-terrorism Center headed by the FBI The Center would strengthen and institutionalize links that already exist between the Justice Department (including the FBI) and other law enforcement authorities;

*The "tagging" of explosive materials Including taggants, which are not unlike microscopic serial numbers, in explosives components would enable law enforcement agents to trace where the explosives were purchased from, and ultimately who purchased them. In this vein, the President has also called for the government to redouble its efforts in developing new technologies that will enable authorities to detect concealed explosive devices;

*The hiring of 1000 new agents and prosecutors The added personnel would deter and punish terrorist activity. This action would substantially enhance our government’s ability to fight terrorism of all kinds.

The strength of these proposals lies in their relative non-effect on lawful behavior. To their credit, many groups have expressed concern over the protection of civil liberties in the rush to prevent a recurrence of Oklahoma City, and in the inevitable over-reaction to the threat of terrorist activity. While the previously mentioned proposals are careful not to impinge on constitutional freedoms, the following aspects of the initiative embody a vast expansion of federal intrusion:

*Increased law enforcement access to and surveillance of telephone communications The government’s hand was radically strengthened last year, when Congress passed a measure forcing telephone companies to install equipment that enables authorities to monitor communications more easily. This provision of the President’s initiative calls for a timely appropriation of funds in order to speed the installation of such equipment. The measure does specify that the surveillance should be court-authorized. But abuse of electronic surveillance--both by government and industry--is made far too easy with this initiative.

Moreover, as a practical matter, it is doubtful that increased telephonic surveillance would play anything more than a negligible part in countering terrorism. A recent study by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts punctuates my assertion. The ten-year study revealed that of the 8,800 applications for wire-tapping and electronic eavesdropping filed since 1983, only 16 were for suspected arson or explosives violations. It would appear that enhanced bugging capabilities in the hands of the FBI would merely strengthen its ability to monitor the lives of law-abiding US citizens.

*Military participation in fighting domestic terrorism This proposal would change existing federal laws that restrict the role of the US military in domestic law enforcement activities. Advocates argue that the armed forces could bring expertise to the counter-terrorism effort. But the military’s record against terrorists is far from sterling. Recall that 241 Marines were killed by a terrorist car bomb in Beirut. Nearly as many troops from the 101st Airborne died when their plane, headed home after peacekeeping duties in the Sinai, was blown apart by a weapon of terror over Canada.

More importantly, our nation has had the good sense not to fuse the authority of civil law with the lethal enforcement capabilities, strict obedience, and rigid command structure of the military for most of our history. All of these--from the lethality of operations to the precise execution of orders to the deference of rank--are necessary on the battlefield, but none of them is beneficial in a free society. There is much that can be done to fight domestic terrorism short of tapping our entire telecommunications grid or unleashing the 10th Mountain Division on Main Street.

More agents, enhanced tracking capabilities, and the creation of a self-standing anti-terrorism center will give the FBI and other crime-fighting agencies important tools in the battle against mass murderers and anarchists. 

But further steps can be taken to overtly challenge the grass-roots support and inflammatory accusations of the anti-government militia groups that have become a breeding ground for misinformation and violence.

*Inform the nation. Local and national news sources should highlight the outrageous ideas and preposterous conspiracy theories being floated by the self-styled "patriot militias," who remind one of European neo-fascists more than American minutemen. Every voting, reasonable citizen should read the publications of these militants to understand their extreme positions and goals. Here are some examples of what the anti-establishment militias believe:

1. It is widely held within the militia movement that the Oklahoma City bombing was a set-up executed by federal authorities with the intent of creating a national outcry against the militant fringe, and thus enabling the government to uproot these armed brigades with public support.

2. In late 1994, after the GOP’s stunning victory, militia newspapers and radio programs were spreading the word that the President was planning to declare the elections null and void.

3. Several "patriot" propaganda organs have alleged that foreign troops are encamped on US soil. Among the more outrageous reports are that 100,000 Russian soldiers are based in the US; hundreds of Chinese mercenaries have been hired by the government to disarm the population; 3,000 UN troops are in Georgia; and more than 15,000 UN troops are encamped in Montana and Oregon.

4. The militias are bound by the common belief that the federal government’s raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas-- which ended in a suicide inferno--was a clear example of government-sponsored murder.

5. Perhaps the most radical theory propounded by the militias is that the federal government has developed a network of makeshift concentration camps across the US. The militias assert that these facilities will be used to imprison and liquidate gun-owners and anyone deemed dangerous by the government.

Sharing these and other conspiracy theories with the public will both discredit the militants and illustrate the extent of their paranoia, enabling mainstream America to develop a keener understanding of what can properly be called an anarchist movement.

*Clean up media messages. Some have hinted that right-wing talk show hosts are to blame for the bombing in Oklahoma City. But to shift all the blame to conservative talk shows is just as inappropriate and unconstructive as blaming Hollywood for serial killing, sexual promiscuity, and urban drug wars. It should not be forgotten that in this crime, as in all crimes, the individuals who commit the act are to blame--not their histories, not their peers, not their politics.

However, we religious conservatives have long argued that images, music, and words do have an effect on individuals. It is both disingenuous and cowardly to step back from this valid point in the wake of Oklahoma City. To some degree, Hollywood and the conservative airwaves share some of the responsibility for the violence in our society, because both the movies of the Left and the radio programs of the Right have been wholly irresponsible in the recent past.

Words and ideas can incite and even push some people over the edge--especially those individuals bereft of faith and deprived of a broad-minded education. Hence, the reactionary Right must moderate its message of violence against government, of contempt for government and its institutions. A discussion of how to kill and maim federal agents does not enhance society or add to the marketplace of ideas. Nor does bragging about how you use pictures of Mr. and Mrs. Clinton for target practice belong in political discourse.

The nihilistic Left also has a responsibility to clean up its movies, to reconsider its contempt for faith and family. Murder, adultery, and profligacy of all kinds are not aspects of everyday life in middle America. The public would do well to inform the media extremists that their shock messages have lost their allure.

*Hold state and federal hearings. Some militia members see the Oklahoma City bombing through the prism of Waco. In fact, since last month’s bombing, many "patriots" have conveyed a cold indifference by equating the carnage of Oklahoma City with the bloodshed of Waco, or by blaming shadowy federal agents for both. Militia members have long demanded Congressional hearings on the tragedy at Waco. And a strong case could be made--even by a reasonable person--for holding hearings into the government’s siege of the compound.

In light of their comments and actions, it is difficult to separate the militia groups that harbored the terrorists from the Oklahoma City bombing--just as it may be difficult for the conspiracy-minded militias to separate Waco from Oklahoma City. Hence, governors and legislatures should convene conferences to shine the light on state militias.

Had the Oklahoma City murderers been affiliated with Islamic or Maoist militants, hearings looking into the dangers of such groups would have begun weeks ago. Congress should treat these American militants no differently. Concurrent hearings considering the poor execution of the government’s operation in Waco might help relieve some of the mounting pressure between the establishment and the militants. And by sharing their "grievances," the militants would expose the paranoia and hate that motivates them.