On April 19, 1995, a massive truck bomb was detonated in downtown Oklahoma City, demolishing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, leaving 168 dead and more than 650 others injured. In the panic that immediately followed, word spread that the hunt for foreign terrorists had begun. Anyone dark-skinned and especially who had that swarthy, furtive, dark Middle Eastern “look” – Arab men, in other words – was highly suspect.
For a moment we tempted demagoguery, fear and the plainest racism. Someone foreign, someone brown – Middle Eastern, likely – would answer for this. Muslims were prone to it, we were sure.
The experts weren’t.
Two days later Timothy McVeigh, a Persian War Army veteran, was arrested in jail, where he had been placed following a traffic violation and arrest for unlawful possession of a handgun; Terry Nichols was arrested in Herington after surrendering to authorities. Both men were members of a right-wing, white nationalist survival group based in Michigan. They would be convicted of multiple felonies, including murder, in the bombing. McVeigh was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001 at a federal prison in Indiana. Nichols is serving 161 consecutive life terms in prison.
Oklahoma City then, and Paris now, should tell us that skin color and religion have no franchise on terrorism. And yet here we are: 31 governors, including Sam Brownback, would block White House efforts to resettle Syrian refugees in their states, although they have no authority to do this. Syrians look like terrorists – as we are told to imagine them – so why take a chance? Today’s irony is that 20 years ago no governors rushed to ban entry to white Kansas “Christians” in the wake of the terror that two of them had created.
Across the Atlantic, people have known for generations that racism and xenophobia have no place in fighting terrorism. This has been so for the ten centuries since the Crusades laid waste to what is now Western Europe; in the most recent history, skin color and religion were non-starters in the hunt for the Baader-Meinhof gang (1970-98), and the Red Army Faction; or the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigade) in Italy, left-wing paramilitary organizations, or the IRA in Britain. These terrorists were neither Middle Eastern nor Muslim.
The rape of the Koran, and smearing the Muslim faith are the consequence of fear-mongers, not a counter to terrorism.
After the horror in Paris Friday, Nov. 13, Europe has mourned and begun the search for answers; America has turned to conniptions, starting with revoking pledges to accept refugees from the tyranny and murder now gripping Syria. Governors, including ours, reacted in panic and dread.
Thus our capitulation to fear, demolishing values at the center of our democratic society, starting with the free flow of information and people.
In Europe, nations that pledged to take refugees are continuing that promise. The watch for enemies is in trust to their experts, national police and intelligence agencies: In France, the Sûreté and Gendarmerie Nationale; in Germany, the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA); in Britain, MI5 and MI6 and Scotland Yard; not far away are the Israeli Mossad, and Interpol, the international police intelligence agency with 198 member nations, headquartered in Lyon, France.
War is at hand. So is the risk of overreach, threatening the innocent. Our larder of individual liberties is already at risk, depleted by various combinations of fear, demagoguery, a lust for power, religious zeal, and simple greed. Free people are diminishing throughout the western world. We don’t need any help from Sam Brownback.
As our governor and his kind have so ably demonstrated, the gravest threat posed to the individual and to society is that phony phrase, “national security.” We add to that threat by illegally closing our borders, first to one group – and who’s next?
In pursuit of terrorists we have tolerated and even encouraged corrupt intelligence operations, criminal FBI, CIA and NSA acts, and State Department lying. We have given presidents more authority to plunge us into war without the people’s consent. From Oklahoma City to the Towers and Paris, before and after, we are fed a constant fright diet about the intentions and capabilities of our enemies. This only makes us willing to surrender our most precious heritage to government through, among other laws, the so-called Patriot Act – all in the name of “national security.”
The late Walter Lippmann predicted a time when the nation would become so terrified we would “willingly put manacles on our wrists to stop our hands from shaking.”
That’s not exactly what’s happening. The manacles are going on while we’re sitting on those hands, blithely unconcerned about our reaction to terrorism, the threat to our freedoms.
Is there a way back to the Constitution, to an open society, to individual freedoms and protection from government? Perhaps not. The chains have been forged. We need only to put them on.