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Oklahoma City Bombing: 26 years later, the same extremist threats prevail

Twenty-six years ago this week, an Army veteran with fierce anti-government beliefs carried out what was then the worst terrorist attack to ever occur on U.S. soil. At the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck packed with explosives — injuring more than 650 people and killing 168, including 19 children.

The Oklahoma City bombing sent shockwaves through the country. The bombing was originally suspected as an attack perpetrated by foreign terrorists. But Americans were horrified to learn that it was actually carried out by an American citizen who had served in the military for three years. McVeigh and his anti-government co-conspirator Terry Nichols had connections with an extremist militia group called the Wolverine Watchmen — the very same organization whose members were arrested for plotting to kill Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year. And McVeigh was briefly a member of the KKK and had a record of racist comments

Fast-forward to today, and the threats of extremists are all too similar. In fact, they are even more dangerous. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking domestic hate and extremism for decades, and we are seeing alarming, violent threats from extremists. Unless we take drastic action now, deadly attacks like the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill could occur again – and take even more innocent lives. 

While more than 25 years have passed since the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, the connections between McVeigh and extremists of today feel shockingly similar. 

For one, anti-government and white supremacist groups are alive and well. Our nation is home to 566 active anti-government groups — 169 of which are militias, which the SPLC defines as groups that actively engage in military-style training — and 128 white nationalist groups.

These groups have proven their danger time and time again. Consider just a few recent examples. In January 2020, three members of The Base, a white nationalist group, were arrested for plotting to murder a couple allegedly engaged in antifascist activity. A few months later, armed anti-government extremists stormed Michigan’s statehouse in opposition to the state’s COVID-19 restrictions. And then came Jan. 6 of this year, when hundreds of extremists launched an assault on the U.S. Capitol that killed five people and injured more than 100 police officers. 

All told, right-wing extremists have been involved in 267 domestic terror incidents and 91 fatalities since 2015, according to a new Washington Post analysis. More than a quarter of those incidents and almost half of those deaths were caused by people who supported white supremacy or were part of groups that championed that ideology. And many of the 267 incidents were also perpetrated by anti-government extremists. 

The Oklahoma City bombing and the Capitol attack show that extremism is prevalent in the ranks of our military and police forces — and is growing. More than 30 current and former military members were charged for crimes related to the Capitol riot, and numerous police officers from across the country appear to have taken part in the assault. A 2019 Military Times poll of active-duty servicemembers found that 36% reported seeing signs of white nationalism or racist ideology in the armed forces – an alarming 14-point surge from the year prior. In a 2020 Military Times survey, 57% of servicemembers of color said they personally experienced racist incidents. 

There are a plethora of signs that extremists will only become more dangerous in the years to come. For one, extremist activity tends to decline when perceived allies are in power and increase when perceived enemies, predominantly Democrats, are in power. Notably, the Oklahoma City bombing occurred with former President Bill Clinton in office. Now that former President Trump is out of power, right-wing hate and anti-government groups will likely surge.

These groups are increasingly willing to use force. Our 2020 Year in Hate report analysts specifically noted that many on the far-right “are no longer satisfied with letting the state maintain a monopoly on violence.” And a March Department of Homeland Security report concluded that domestic violent extremism posed a heightened threat in 2021.  

Additionally, these groups are moving to lesser-known social media platforms and messaging apps like Telegram, as well as encrypted chat rooms, to plan new attacks and avoid detection by law enforcement authorities.

We need to take urgent action to combat these threats. Congress should pass the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which would establish offices tasked with monitoring, investigating and prosecuting cases of domestic terrorism. We also must improve our national collection of hate crime data, as these crimes are notoriously underreported. Additionally, the Department of Defense should screen military enlistees for ties to white supremacist and extremist groups and kick out those found to be spreading or acting on such hate-filled ideologies. And we should focus on prevention and education, providing communities with more resources.

These are just some of the steps that will be crucial in the months and years ahead. As the 26th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing reminds us, the threats of extremism remain all too real. We can’t risk sitting by and allowing another atrocity to occur.