Bombing won't temper the voices of division

ON POLITICS

April 26, 1995|By Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- It was probably inevitable that the Oklahoma City bombing tragedy would find its way into the political dialogue and debate over whether government is the friend or foe of the American citizenry, and particularly of this year's political poster boy, "the angry white male."

Once the assumption was dispelled that the tragedy was the work of foreign terrorists, with the arrest of a white male linked to a gun-toting militia group of white men with various hates against the government, it was only a short time before the charges and countercharges would start flying.

Last Saturday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the self-proclaimed "revolutionary" against government as we have known it for 40 years under Democratic congressional control, expressed outrage when a reporter asked him whether the anti-government climate that helped the Republicans win last November might have fed the attack on the federal building.

"I think that's grotesque and offensive," Gingrich snapped back. He chastised the reporter for even raising the possibility. "It is grotesque to suggest that anybody in this country who raises legitimate questions about the size and scope of the federal government has any implication in this."

Gingrich's remark poses the dilemma. It may indeed be "grotesque" even to speculate that his criticisms of how the government functions could in any way be responsible for the tragedy. But there can be little doubt in this era of mass communication that the acerbic words of such notable Americans as Gingrich -- and extremists of both right and left -- have much greater resonance, and potential influence on attitudes and behavior, as they reach millions by radio and television.

President Clinton, alluding to bitter media critics of government on Monday in Minneapolis, took note of "things that are said regularly over the airwaves. . . . so many loud and angry voices in America today whose sole goal seems to be to try to keep some people as paranoid as possible. . . . They spread hate, they leave the impression by their very words that violence is acceptable."

Without mentioning any names, the president warned that "people like that who want to share our freedoms must know that their bitter words can have consequences. . . . To those of us who do not agree with the purveyors of hatred and division, with the promoters of paranoia, I remind you that we have freedom of speech, too, and we have responsibilities, too. And some of us have not discharged our responsibilities. . . . It is time we all stood up and spoke against that kind of reckless speech and behavior."

Clinton's remarks likewise pose the dilemma. Anyone who twists a radio dial or channel-surfs on television these days can hear a spectrum of incitements to hate and disparagement of government officials and workers. Yet, as Clinton noted, freedom of speech is among the nation's most cherished individual rights and cannot and should not be imperiled in the hope of eliminating incendiary radio or television commentary.

No matter how cautiously Clinton couches his warning, he leaves himself vulnerable. Witness the response by inflammatory talk show commentator Rush Limbaugh, who subsequently warned that "liberals intend to use this tragedy for their own gain" with "many in the mainstream media" making "irresponsible attempts categorize and demonize those who had nothing to do with this. . . . The insinuations . . . are going to have a chilling effect on legitimate discussion."

The possibility, however, that anything Clinton or anyone else says will have a chilling effect on Limbaugh and others of his ilk is slim to none. There isn't much likelihood that the tirades against government that may or may not have contributed to the hostility of "angry white males" will be modulated at Clinton's request.

Just as violence in the movies is deplorable and may inspire copycat acts of real violence, the only answer in a free society like ours is voluntary restraint, and the boycotting of the perpetrators by those who abhor it. It is probably too much to expect these days that the voices of division will be lowered, or will be tuned out by all who hear them.

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