SPLC Warns of Antigovernment Climate at Oklahoma City Bombing Panel
Fifteen years after the Oklahoma City bombing, the United States is experiencing an antigovernment climate remarkably similar to the atmosphere that preceded the attack, a Southern Poverty Law Center expert told an audience gathered in Washington, D.C., for a panel discussion and a keynote address by former President Bill Clinton.
Unlike the 1990s, however, mainstream commentators and politicians are pouring fuel on the fire with heated antigovernment rhetoric and outrageous conspiracy theories, such as the suggestion that the president is creating "death panels" or that undocumented immigrants are responsible for a rash of leprosy cases in the United States.
"It just stokes the fire and I don't see anything that's moving us toward any kind of calming down," said SPLC Intelligence Project Director Mark Potok.
The April 16 symposium was hosted by the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Democratic Leadership Council.
Clinton recounted his experience as president when the bomb exploded at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 men, women and children. The bombing by antigovernment zealot Timothy McVeigh was the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S history.
"[W]hat we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or that we should reduce our passion for the positions we hold, but that the words we use really do matter because … there's this vast echo chamber," Clinton said. "And they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious, alike; they fall on the connected and the unhinged, alike."
He offered a further note of caution to people in positions of power who foment antigovernment anger through the use of incendiary language.
"[T]here is a difference between criticizing a policy or a politician and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedom and the public servants who implement them," Clinton said. "And the more prominence you have in politics or media or some other pillar of life, the more you have to keep that in mind."
Clinton added: "[R]emember, words have consequences as much as actions do, and what we advocate, commensurate with our position and responsibility, we have to take responsibility for. We owe that to Oklahoma City."
The SPLC has documented a 244 percent increase in the number of antigovernment "Patriot" groups – from 149 groups in 2008 to 512 groups in 2009. Patriot groups include militias and other extremist organizations that see the federal government as their primary enemy.