Waco, Oklahoma City, and the Post-9/11 Left-Right Dynamic

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Ten years ago, on April 19, 1995, the largest terrorist attack in U.S. history on American soil occurred when an explosion brought down the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and snuffed out the lives of 168 individuals, including nineteen children.

After the initial shock, the political implications began to surface. Clinton implicitly blamed the attack on right-wing talk radio and its "purveyors of hate and division," and many left-liberal pundits echoed the same line. Reactionary anti-Clintonism — opposition to the gun grabbing, the social engineering, and the taxing and spending of the Clinton regime — was the root cause of the Oklahoma massacre, we were told. The more libertarian and less establishment wing of the conservative movement was the culprit.

Either forgotten or distorted at the time was the connection between Oklahoma and Waco. Exactly two years before the Oklahoma City bombing, the FBI put the finishing touches on the federal government’s fifty-one-day standoff with the Branch Davidians, finalizing the embarrassing chapter in federal law enforcement by sending a tank through the home of David Koresh and his followers, injecting the building with poisonous CS gas, launching incendiary devices at the building and shooting with machineguns those who attempted to escape the inferno. About eighty civilians, including about twenty children, died at Waco, and Timothy McVeigh referred to the attack at Oklahoma City as payback for what the federal government did two years earlier.

Those who pointed this out in the days after Oklahoma were walking on eggshells. The left-liberal establishment, along with most of the Republican politicians, did not want to think of Oklahoma as somewhat explainable — even if in no way excusable — in the context of the criminal acts of the U.S. government. To say that State violence paved the way to terrorist violence was condemned as making excuses for the latter. Even worse, to focus too much on the federal government’s atrocity at Waco, or even its run-of-the-mill bureaucratic despotism in general, became seen as somehow aiding the enemies of American civilization and even encouraging mass murders like Tim McVeigh.

After Oklahoma, Congress engaged in some "hearings" on Waco, and discovered, predictably, that the U.S. government had done nothing seriously wrong. The Republican Congress, the conservative establishment, and most of the conservative movement came to validate the Clinton line on Waco, epitomized by his flippant statement the day after the massacre of the Branch Davidians: "I do not think the United States government is responsible for the fact that a bunch of religious fanatics decided to kill themselves.”

In response to Oklahoma, the Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The police state began to grow, with the continuing façade of Clintonian domestic social engineering and the soft socialism of the Democratic Party. Clinton, who said shortly after Oklahoma that "[t]here’s nothing patriotic about hating your government or pretending you can hate your government but love your country,” continued to intimidate many conservatives into turning away from fundamental criticism of the modern State and its grandest horrors. But many conservatives continued to hate the government and love their country. Many refused to swallow the new convention that topics such as Waco were now off limits, and that to oppose the federal government, even after Oklahoma, was to tacitly side with such terrorists as Timothy McVeigh.

In 1997, even John Ashcroft responded to a proposed Internet surveillance bill by saying, "The administration’s interest in all e-mail is a wholly unhealthy precedent, especially given this administration’s track record on FBI files and IRS snooping. Every medium by which people communicate can be subject to exploitation by those with illegal intentions. Nevertheless, this is no reason to hand Big Brother the keys to unlock our e-mail diaries, open our ATM records, read our medical records, or translate our international communications." As bad as the Republicans were, they seemed much less willing than the Democrats to turn a tragedy such as Oklahoma into an occasion to build a Total State.

On September 11, 2001, the largest terrorist attack on American soil, the hijacking of four planes and the destruction of the World Trade Center, part of the Pentagon, and more than three-thousand American lives, far exceeded in bloodshed, property damage and government reaction what had happened about six and half years earlier in Oklahoma.

But this time, the Republicans were in power.

"You are either with us or you are with the terrorists," uttered by the Republican president, became the new slogan for most of the conservative movement. Concerned and thoughtful Americans, libertarians, liberals and even some conservatives, pointed out that 9/11 occurred as a result of decades of inexcusable U.S. foreign policy — atrocities such as the First Gulf War, the sanctions in Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of children, the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, the propping up of anti-democratic tyrants in the Middle East and the military support of Israel — and these concerned and thoughtful Americans were accused of aiding the enemy, defending the terrorist attacks, siding against America. As Bush rammed the PATRIOT Act through Congress, erecting the surveillance state that conservatives rightfully feared Clinton wanted to implement throughout the 1990s but never had the political capital to do so, many conservatives this time went along with the federal power grab, agreeing with the new post-9/11 John Ashcroft that "those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty… only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America’s friends."

In the years since 9/11, the mainstream conservative movement has not relented much in its hostility toward dissent on foreign policy and national security issues. Many conservatives today don’t want to listen to explanations of anti-American terrorist attacks as a symptom of an aggressive U.S foreign policy. To discuss hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi babies is seen as totally inappropriate and tactless, perhaps even seditious, when contemplating 9/11 and how best to respond to it. And to oppose the next war advertised as one in defense of the U.S. is also taboo. Indeed, to oppose U.S. foreign policy is to oppose the country. As President Bush might say, if he were as eloquent as Bill Clinton, "There’s nothing patriotic about hating your government or pretending you can hate your government but love your country."

Nowadays it is mostly the left that stands up against federal usurpations of police power, new surveillance mechanisms, the burgeoning police state and the harassment of anti-government dissidents. Today it is the left that cries out the distinctions between patriotism and nationalism, explanations for terrorism and excuses for it. Today it is the left that the establishment generally agrees helps to give aid and comfort to the enemy.

Conservatives don’t talk that much about Waco anymore. April 19 is more remembered by most Americans for what happened in Oklahoma ten years ago — the anti-government act of mass murder — than what happened twelve years ago, the government’s act of mass murder. Indeed, the new conservative line on Oklahoma is about as pro-government as it gets, blaming the atrocity on Saddam Hussein and somehow using the event that shielded Clinton from conservative criticism to justify Bush’s War on Terror!

Some conservatives still condemn Waco all the while cheering on Iraq, where Waco has been happening every day since the invasion. Liberals, on the other hand, don’t seem to fully appreciate that they are in a similar position that conservatives were in after Oklahoma. Much of the reason might be partisan politics — Waco and Oklahoma happened under Clinton while the two Iraq wars and 9/11 happened under Bushes. Perhaps it reflects the conservative inclination to defend foreign intervention and reject criticisms of it, and the liberal inclination to defend domestic intervention.

However, the question becomes blurred when we look more closely at the events. McVeigh was a soldier of the U.S. State, who had gone to the First Gulf War under the command of a Republican administration. Although many conservatives, even ones horrified by Waco and not intimidated completely by Oklahoma, probably never cared to admit it, the effect of the first Bush’s war on McVeigh was instrumental. He saw himself as at war with the federal government, and thought of his innocent victims as "collateral damage." It was not just the State violence of Clinton’s Waco, but also of Bush’s Desert Storm, that created McVeigh. The right never fully came to terms with this, and most of the left never fully realized it.

The bipartisan support for police-state responses to Oklahoma and 9/11 also blurs the issue. So too does the bipartisan support and whitewashing of most federal atrocities, whether in the Middle East or on American soil, demonstrate that this is not a Republican vs. Democratic issue, at least not as far as the establishment is concerned. After all, it was during the first Bush regime that the Waco siege was initially planned and the Ruby Ridge massacre was conducted, and it was Clinton’s Madeline Albright that called hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi children a price well "worth it" to put pressure on former U.S. ally Saddam Hussein.

The American police state and warfare state often draw criticism predominantly from either the left or right, depending on the partisan flavor of the regime. During Waco, although some bold leftists saw through the federal lies, there was silence among mainstream liberals, who didn’t want to agree with the right-wing "extremists" that Clinton had done something so awful. In thinking of Iraq today, even conservatives who should know better, and realize on some level that this in not in any way a proper response to 9/11 — that indeed this is the kind of intervention that led to 9/11 — are reticent to agree with the "extremist" far left on American foreign policy.

The left and right disagree on many issues, but such crucial ones such as aggressive war and the dangerous federal police state have drawn similar criticisms from people on both sides, often at different times. For liberty to triumph, the more libertarian wings of both left and right need to see their common goals, see through the partisan smokescreens, and recognize, at all times, that opposition to and fundamental criticism of the State do not necessarily imply hatred of America or solidarity with its most murderous enemies.

To defend Americans from anti-U.S. terrorism, a necessary element is reducing State terrorism, greatly scaling back the power and size of the U.S. government, and revoking its license to kill and get away with it. Conservatives today might be able to wrap themselves in the flag and condemn dissidents as traitors, but before they know it, another Clinton might come to power and they’ll be the ones again accused of assisting the enemy by opposing the State. They might come, once again, to see the difference between love of country and love of the government, only it might be too late to bask in the distinction, thanks to the anti-dissident political atmosphere they are helping right now to create. Today’s leftists, it is to be hoped, will remember the feeling of being branded a traitor, should a Democrat be in power during the next national crisis or war.

Remember Waco and the Iraqi sanctions, remember Oklahoma and 9/11. To forget any of the major episodes of U.S. terrorism and anti-U.S. terrorism, to brush their relationships with one another aside and condemn those who invoke them, will not help in protecting America, much less in restoring and preserving its freedoms.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research assistant at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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