Car bomb explodes myths as it rips at America's heartland

April 24, 1995|By Mike Littwin

In the end, the hardest part of the Oklahoma tragedy to deal with may be that the terror was apparently home-grown.

It would have been better -- easier, anyway -- if the terrorism had come from somewhere far away, brought here by people with foreign accents and foreign ideas.

We wouldn't have understood the senseless killing any better. But we would have been more comfortable with our lack of understanding.

Now, everything is different.

When the story broke, when the horror first flashed across our TV screens, when they carried the babies out of the building, when all our hearts were breaking, nobody thought of paramilitary groups. Terror, they kept telling us, had come to the heartland.

The story line seemed clear: Foreigners had invaded our midst and struck a blow against America and all that our country stands for.

The president got up to say that the victims were not simply those lost in the shattered federal building in Oklahoma City. The intended target, he said, was the United States of America.

The headline kept flashing on the TV screen, with the horror of the bombed-out building as backdrop: Terror Strikes Heartland. You hear the music. You see the words. You know what they mean. Terror means somebody foreign did it. Heartland is not just a geographical designation. It stands for the essence of America.

Nobody explains why Oklahoma is any more essentially America than, say, Maryland. Or even New York or L.A.

But I think we can guess. The heartland is the America of our mythology -- pure and innocent, also white and God-fearing. It's the Main Street America of Norman Rockwell.

This America had been despoiled, everyone felt sure, by foreign-sounding Arabs wearing weird clothes who prefer car bombs to diplomacy. It was an easy guess. Certainly, there are Arab extremists who do seem to favor car bombs. See: the World Trade Center.

But then the story turned.

First, the FBI released composite pictures of two white, definitely un-Arab-looking men as suspects in the bombing.

Then we heard rumors that white supremacists, or maybe violent tax resisters, were involved.

I saw this quote from an anonymous FBI agent: "It could be home-grown, right-wing separatists or tax protesters. It's in that part of the country."

Suddenly, it seemed, the heartland was nut-land, home of extremism.

What's nutty, of course, is the stereotyping. The man they arrested grew up in upstate New York. Material witnesses were grabbed in Kansas and in Michigan. The FBI is investigating links to paramilitary groups in Arizona.

But the president, who went to Oklahoma to honor the innocent victims and the valiant rescuers, was apparently right about the attack. It seems as if this was a direct hit on the United States of America and all it stands for. The surprise was that the attack, if the arrests prove out, came from Americans themselves.

And what does that tell us?

Maybe nothing. Or maybe this. Maybe it tells us that the real myth in America is that we're somehow different from everyone else.

The truth is that we have untold violence in America. You have only to look at the murder count to know that. Or to realize that in some states the prison budget actually exceeds the budget for higher education. But our violence doesn't end there.

We have hate groups in America, too. We've had them for a while. As an example, people were blowing up black churches -- and black children -- in Alabama roughly 30 years ago.

The new hate groups are often anti-government extremists who celebrate a culture of guns and paranoia and who have been threatening to use violence to reclaim their peculiar vision of a lost America.

Is that what happened in Oklahoma? And a more important question is this: How did these people come to be part of our America?

If the bombing had come from foreign extremists with an agenda we barely understand, we wouldn't have had to look inward.

But if the FBI is right, the terrorists are Americans, with another, twisted agenda we barely understand

And, meanwhile, there are all those dead people, all those dead babies, all the tears, all that heartbreak, and none of it seems to make any sense at all.

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