Sense of comfort in arrests overshadowed by disappointment, anger

April 22, 1995|By Susan Baer and Nelson Schwartz | Susan Baer and Nelson Schwartz,Washington Bureau of The Sun Sun staff writers Tom Bowman and Dan Tanh Dang contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- With events increasingly pointing to home-grown -- not international -- suspects in the Oklahoma City bombing, any sense of relief that Americans felt yesterday seemed to be offset by incredulity, anxiety and sadness that such grand-scale terrorism could have come from within our borders.

"American people can do this to our own people?" said a stunned Angela Hom, owner of the Skyline Restaurant in Portland, Ore.

After announcing the apprehension yesterday of Timothy McVeigh in Perry, Okla., in connection with Wednesday's bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City -- shortly before a second suspect, Terry Nichols, surrendered in Herington, Kan. -- Attorney General Janet Reno cautioned against reaching any conclusions about the case.

But she said that, at this point, "every evidence indicates that it is domestic in nature."

Some around the country greeted the news with a sigh of relief, however small, believing that a self-inflicted wound might be more controllable, and more aberrant, than an attack by foreign extremists who might be more likely to strike again.

"I'm relieved it's not terrorists from other countries -- they're off the wall," said Bernie Hayes, owner of the Wooden Barrell general store in the tiny Vermont town of Chittenden.

But any sense of comfort he felt was overshadowed by a sense of disappointment and, of course, the kind of anger that is still seething around the nation. "I'm sad that it's Americans. I didn't think we were that type of people. It's cowardice.

"I'd have no qualms shooting these guys, if they need a volunteer," said Mr. Hayes, a deer hunter. "I'd make them suffer, just like they're making these people suffer."

Tom Marr, a talk show host on WCBM in Baltimore, said one of yesterday's callers told him she felt "relieved in a strange sense" because she thought it would be easier for law enforcement officials to get a handle on a domestic operation than on international terrorism.

"But it's hard to even think about a sense of relief," said Mr. Marr, echoing the administration's caution about reaching conclusions about the case too quickly.

"Who knows where this trail is going to lead?"

Still, a public hungering for justice and for answers to a seemingly senseless attack was eager to make sense of it and assess the chances that it might happen again.

"If it were Middle East terrorists, the likelihood of it being repeated might be higher, so people might now feel a lot less vulnerable thinking it's a lone group of disturbed people," said Douglas Marlowe, a Philadelphia psychologist.

On the other hand, he added, "sometimes when violence comes from within, it's harder to rationalize it and explain it away. People might think, 'OK, it's more controllable, but it could be my next-door neighbor.' "

Indeed, Danna Maller, director of marketing for an investment management firm in Washington, said she was more alarmed than she had been before after learning that the terror might have come from paramilitary or white supremacist groups within the country.

"You know these groups exist. We've seen incidents on a smaller scale," she said. "But nothing of this magnitude."

"People are quick to pin everything on the Arabs, and I'm pleased it wasn't them," said Steve Shepherd, a Washington business consultant.

"But it's frightening because when you hear about these kind of supremacist groups, you write them off and say they're harmless," he said. "But they are not harmless."

Ms. Hom, who came to the United States from China 29 years ago, said she, too, was "more scared" that the terrorism appeared to be American-grown, especially because she is a member of an ethnic minority group.

"My reaction is shock," said Ms. Hom, owner of the small burger place in Portland. "We are a minority. The white supremacists, the skinheads -- that would be worse for me."

Some Americans said that, sadly, they were not shocked that the suspects turned out to be U.S. citizens. Several said the bombing underscores what they feel is a growing tide of lawlessness and disrespect for authority in the United States.

"These days, it's not surprising," said Tom Payne, who was visiting Baltimore's Inner Harbor from Leesburg, Va. "I think that nationally, we've had a reduction in morality. Lately, it seems that the solution for anger . . . is violence. I'm not surprised at all that an American was responsible."

Bob Lee of Roxboro, N.C., who works for an electric utility, said: "You'd like to think that it was someone overseas, but I'm not surprised.

"There is a percentage of people in this country who will do anything. Every day, there are so many murders. This is just murder on a large scale."

Mr. Lee, visiting Washington with his wife and two daughters, worries that the bombing signals a decline of morals in the country. "American citizens should have more respect for America's institutions," he said.

Touring the nation's capital with his family, James Browne, an airline pilot from Tiburon, Calif., echoed the mixed bag of relief, dismay and helplessness that the country was grappling with yesterday. "I'm relieved that someone's been caught. It's disappointing that the suspects are Americans, though," he said.

"We're going to learn to live with it," he added. "We'll become hardened to it."

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