Mass murder isn't a blow for democracy

April 28, 1995|By Robert Scheer

QUITE A TIME for immigrant bashing last week, until it turned out that the death and destruction in Oklahoma City was as American as apple pie. Indeed, the evidence now points to nativist "patriots," those home-grown white chauvinists who insist all of our problems are imported.

At the very least, we owe a national apology to the Islamic and Arabic people who were instantly assigned collective guilt for the horror. They were pictured as dastardly invaders of the pure heartland of America, where doors are never locked and violence is unknown.

What rubbish. The rural outback of America was never a stranger to mindless violence, and it is now honeycombed with a motley but very dangerous gathering of rightist, neo-fascist, racist and anti-Semitic gun-toting posses and militias. There are deep roots to this madness, which thrives on economic dislocation and crystallizes around conspiracy theories. Right-wing extremists have long attacked the federal government as the tool of various foreign cabals, the papacy, communists, Freemasons, the elders Zion or now the United Nations and the New World Order.

What is new is the resonance currently provided this bizarre message by out-of-control talk-show hosts and opportunistic politicians who routinely call the U.S. government the enemy of all that is decent in our civilization. Anyone who works for the federal government, Republican lawmakers excepted, is condemned as at best a faceless bureaucrat and more often a crook. Taxation by Washington is defined as theft and thanks is rarely offered for the transportation, defense and medical systems that absorb most federal funds.

The drumbeat of criticism that holds that every federal government program and agency is inevitably wasteful, corrupt and hostile to the interests of white males was bound to take its toll on weak minds and desperate souls. Given the constant glorification of the undifferentiated anger of white men, is it so surprising that the first to be charged with committing this atrocity is indeed an angry white man?

This anger has a social base. At a time when labor unions are weak, foreign competition is fierce and good jobs are hard to come by, being a white male no longer guarantees access to the good life. For many white males, as it has long been for blacks and browns, the military is now the only jobs program. But being "all that you can be" often turns out to leave one woefully unprepared for success in civilian life.

Consider the sad trail of Timothy J. McVeigh, the young man arrested in connection with the Oklahoma City bombing, from the glory of the Persian Gulf war to a life defined by frequent pilgrimages from trailer parks to convenience stores. A routine relieved only by the occasional gun-owners' flea market, a few beers down at the local bar, the security of packing a loaded 9mm pistol and soaring dreams of destroying the U.S. government while testing homemade bombs on an Army buddy's farm.

These are the walking wounded of the modern economy, more embittered than their black counterparts because expectations are higher. These "lumpen" whites also desperately need educational and work opportunities to hook them into a real life.

Instead, the paranoid fantasies of the emerging white underclass are fanned by ultra-rightists who use social alienation as a club against women, minorities, gays, immigrants and -- the real target -- all progressive federal programs. Populism now shuns the progressive examples of Andrew Jackson, Robert La Follette and Huey Long, who made government provide for the common people.

No longer believing in the positive role of government, the new populist anger distills into a sour cry for personal armed sovereignty. The bullet replaces the vote, gun ownership becomes the litmus issue and federal agencies the targets of choice.

This belief system has been nurtured by right-wing propaganda, whether or not that was the intended effect. We have been deluged with the message that the social contract ends with the Second Amendment, which, it is claimed, bestows an ultimate veto power on every alienated and armed citizen. Otherwise reasonable politicians, like Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., have endorsed this claptrap along with a bevy of outright nuts. Just what is the distance between the rhetoric of the National Rifle Association and those who train in various unofficial militias throughout the country?

I don't know or care what sort of gun one truly needs for hunting. But I do know that it is a cruel hoax to suggest that bearing arms or explosives is a legitimate exercise in democracy. Oklahoma City should have taught us that.

C7 Robert Scheer wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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