Attitudes shifted that day in 1995 when I stood before the miserable, exposed interior of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
This year marked the 20th anniversary of that terrorist attack, perpetrated by Americans. Few realize, however, that it was not the first time Americans plotted to bomb the OKC federal building.
James Ellison, founder of the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord (CSA), came to OKC in 1983 with white supremacist Richard Wayne Snell to case the building. Snell wanted to target the government due to a tax dispute.
Ellison’s sketches and plans could have served as a first draft for the 1995 attack since they called for a vehicle packed with explosives to be parked in front of the building and remotely detonated.
Snell was on death row at the time of the bombing, and had been warning of some big event on the day of his scheduled execution. According to correctional officer logs, Snell relaxed on his bunk “smiling and chuckling” as he watched television coverage from OKC. He was executed that night.
Immediately after the bombing, attention focused on those with international ties. Perhaps in some of the most shameful acts after the bombing, religious institutions, such as the Islamic Society near the Oklahoma State University campus, were shot at and vandalized.
No one — myself included — wanted to believe that 168 people died at the hand of someone who could have been a schoolmate or a co-worker.
No, we weren’t completely unaware of numerous anti-government groups in the state and region. Law enforcement warned that their shift to paramilitary was concerning and dangerous. But after dayslong sieges on such compounds, some of which ended badly, many questioned if the government was overreaching.
For those of us not privy to criminal records and crime scenes, it appeared members of the groups just wanted to be left alone, and we thought it was a viable option.
The OKC bombing blasted any pretense that such paramilitary, anti-government groups were simply misunderstood patriots.
Nonetheless, when the worst terrorist attack on American soil was dwarfed by international criminals in September 2001, focus shifted. Although more Americans have died in this country in attacks by domestic extremists than in attacks associated with international groups, we’ve largely held a reactionary stance.
This week, the pendulum swung again. The U.S. Department of Justice created a new counsel to coordinate investigation and prosecution of anti-government and hate groups here at home.
There are, no doubt, those who will oppose this new scrutiny, try to paint it as an overreach or as an attempt to silence those of a specific political or religious bent. If you ever find yourself drawn into such arguments, remember the OKC federal building, the Kansas Jewish Community Center or the Charleston Emanuel AME Church and those Americans who wanted innocent people, including children, to pay the ultimate price for their hate.
Violence — inspired by ideologies abroad or at home — requires our attention.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on October 17, 2015. Photo credit: Michael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News/TNS