A TIME FOR HEALING
APRIL 19, 1996
On the first anniversary of the explosion at the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168, ceremonies throughout the city attempted to heal some of the psychological wounds from the bombing. A panel of NewsHour regulars looks at Friday's ceremonies and the after-effects of the bomb.
JIM LEHRER: Now a discussion about some of the impacts of the Oklahoma City bombing. It is among five NewsHour regulars: regional commentators Pat McGuigan of the "Daily Oklahoman" and Cynthia Tucker of the "Atlanta Constitution," Presidential historian Michael Beschloss, author/journalist Haynes Johnson, and essayist Richard Rodriguez of the Pacific News Service. I talked to them this afternoon. Pat, is Oklahoma City a different place a year later because of the bombing?
PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: Oh, I think it's different--it has been filled with almost examples of ministry, people trying to just help each other to weather through what we knew would be a difficult time and sure enough has been difficult. I think Oklahoma City and Oklahoma in general, as I've said before, is still a conservative place. I think it's probably also a more compassionate place of people where--a place where people try to keep one another's feelings in minds. There's a lot of that going on today, and I hope we can sustain and kind of bottle it and help make the city, the state, and the nation, corny as it may sound, you know, a better place to live in.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes, is the United States of America a more compassionate place due to what happened a year ago at Oklahoma City?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: I wish I could say so, Jim. I don't know if the evidence is that case, but I do think Oklahoma City made us look at ourselves in a way we haven't for a long time. And, you know, the terrorism we felt, if you remember when it happened, the first reports that there were outsiders, there were people with oriental clothes and dark hair and speeding away in cars, and it turns out they were enemies within. They were us, and I think that was one of those seminole events that made us because of television, because of the horror of it, say you've got problems. What Patrick just said about bottling the compassion, maybe it does have a therapeutic--let's hope so--effect.
JIM LEHRER: In San Francisco, how does it look to you, Richard, a year later?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Umm, I'm a little less optimistic than Haynes. My sense is that the story has not really played itself out yet on the imagination of Americans mainly because I think that we are still seeing the story either in the version that we're getting today on the list of new programs in which victims have ministered to victims, a city repairs itself in pain out of love for the dead and, and for the injured. We get that version of the civic life. Finally, I think that we have not still in this year figured out how the perpetrators of this event really connect to us. They seem to us still in the imagination as, as sociopaths, as loners, as belonging to these strange tribes on the plains, these, these frigid, these frigid men who don't connect to the rest of us and I think that unless we really figure out how we connect to not only the men in this instance and also the men in River Ridge, the people in, in Waco, the Unabomber, unless we figure out how the rest of us are implicated, I think the notion of a civic healing is, is too premature.
JIM LEHRER: How does it look from Atlanta, Cynthia?
CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: I think Richard is right, that this hasn't played out yet. I think that, if anything, unfortunately, Oklahoma City is part of a continuing of events that have made us less trusting of each other and more anxious. It's part of a piece of, of all of these disruptions of our civic life, including the Unabomber, which have made us step back and say there are people among us that we thought were normal, loving, neighborly Americans who, in fact, are not. And I do think Oklahoma City was a loss of innocence for Americans. We had not been exposed to this. We're really been very lucky. We had not been exposed to terrorism on our own soil, as many other countries have had to cope with, the Israelis, for decades, Europeans. Great Britain is still in the throes of terrorist attacks by the IRA. We hadn't had to deal with that. Now we've come face to face with the notion that we have terrorists among us, but I don't think we quite know yet what that means.
JIM LEHRER: Does that add up to you, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: It does, and I think one of the most poignant things, that if you look through history, and here's another example of it, some of the times, some of the moments in history in which Americans really are most united and which we really do look at our best qualities are not happy times but times of great tragedy and courage and transcendence, all of which we've seen really during the last year. A couple of other ways I think this really does connect to our history, there have been moments in our century when we have had things such as in early 1919, there was a series of bombings and even letter bombs at times just after World War I, when people were very worried, and Americans tried to decide whether these were isolated incidents or perhaps whether there was an anarchist--they cared about--that led them to take certain measures that in some cases violated civil liberties, we have this kind of later in the century, and I think what we're groping for now is to really come to a conclusion like this, was this just a couple of perhaps lone bombers, or is this connected to a movement, perhaps a militia movement that we should be very worried about, and also, what is the proper balance between the desire to preserve the peace, the government, for instance, in some cases targeted wiretapping and other things that in normal times we wouldn't like to see, what's the balance between that and at the same time making sure that the liberties of every citizen are preserved.
JIM LEHRER: Patrick, in Oklahoma City, is the emphasis still on the victims and, and their families, or is it--has it moved into this, this kind of discussion as well?
MR. McGUIGAN: Well, certainly there's this kind of discussion going on, and in terms of the emphasis, you really--I would hesitate to be overly general and to characterize everybody's feelings because we have the full range of reactions that you can possibly imagine, including among the families, where there's even disagreements among some of the groups organized to support the families. I think a lot of the observations that have been made are valid. In Oklahoma, you know, we have a lot of native peoples, native Americans, Indians, and certainly you can look back in the history of the government's dealings with those people and see some moments of real horror in what happened--Wounded Knee right here in Oklahoma, the battle of the Washataw in what's now Western Oklahoma. There's a kind of stoical understanding that suffering happened. I think the key thing for the country as we looked at the larger picture and certainly our future in this city and state is where do we go from here, what happens as a result of this? I don't think we should issue calls for unilateral rhetorical disarmament by one side or the other. I do think there's room for greater care in accuracy when we criticize groups of people or criticize philosophies or ideas, whether those criticisms are coming from someone like me in a more conservative direction or from someone else, that we take care to focus on the real issue and not lump, for example, the majority of radio talk show hosts with the likes of that militia guy in Washington--I mean, in Michigan, who was saying truly hateful things right around the time in the days leading up to the bombing. If we lump people and don't separate apples from oranges, we fall into a danger of making public discourse impossible, to where we can't have our differences and eventually reach some kind of compromise.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Haynes, that very point was made within the first two or three days on this very program after the Oklahoma City bombing, that maybe out of this tragedy some good might come. And one of the goods that was mentioned was the very thing Patrick was just talking about, that it might cool the rhetoric just along the lines that he predicted. Has that happened?
MR. JOHNSON: It hasn't happened, but I think people are aware of it. I'd like to differ with what we said--with Cynthia, respectfully--we've always had extremist groups in this country. We've had violence all over the place. We had bombings in the 60's. I covered them. We had civil rights, Ku Klux Klan people. I saw them murder people in the 60's and 70's. We've had hate groups and hate all over the country, but we've always been able to sort of live and survive it. What makes it different in two ways is television, No. 1, and the unsettled nature of what you're talking about--
JIM LEHRER: Why television? What television do?
MR. JOHNSON: It brings it into our home in a way. Wherever you were in the last 20 years, television brought home horror to you. It also brought home nobility. The Kennedy assassination, as terrible as it was, you saw--and that was--Jack Kennedy, Bob Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X all played out in the murders on television that we saw at home--the war in Vietnam, the riots--all these things, and then in ceremonies like this--it was beautiful this morning--in Oklahoma City, we've had the grieving and so forth, but then we sort of stepped back from it. But I think in this case, what I'm trying to suggest about this, it does make it almost impossible to forget that we have problems within. That's a salutary thing. And if we can go on from that point--then, then you can begin to understand lowering the rhetoric, distilling the--I think in Washington even there is a pulling back from where it was a year ago, I do believe that.
JIM LEHRER: Well, now, Richard, you were saying that we're still groping, that there hasn't been that kind of movement yet, is that correct?
MR. RODRIGUEZ: I think so. My sense is that there are issues here that may not even be somehow on the political register. I'm thinking, for example, of this extraordinary drama in America. You see it all over the country and on both sides of the political spectrum, this anxiety about our connection to the land, the sense that we are losing connection to the soil of even--in California in the immigration debate, you know, where the very source of our identity is Americans, was always presumed to be connected to land. If you were born here, you were an American, whether or not your mother was America. Now, the debate moves into this new area of perhaps blood. Maybe blood is the basis of our citizenship, but you look around America and you start listening to people, whether, whether preservationists, whether Luddites like the Unabomber or whether militia men, and there is this constant hymn coming from all corners about people who feel themselves cut off from some basic aspect of the American identity, and I think that's soil.
JIM LEHRER: Do you hear the same hymn, Cynthia?
MS. TUCKER: Yes. There is an increasing anxiety, an increasing sense of disenfranchisement. I want to comment on something Haynes was saying earlier about whether or not we have, in fact, pulled back from some of the harsh rhetoric. I think that it is true, that people are a lot more conscious of the effect of that kind of harsh rhetoric than they were before. The ordinary American who might have thought that it was quite all right for some radio talk show host to be extreme in their views, some members of Congress even to be very harsh in the rhetoric they used on the floor, I think--
JIM LEHRER: That--for instance, about federal employees, 168, most of those who died in Oklahoma City were, in fact, federal employees.
MS. TUCKER: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think that ordinary Americans are a lot more conscious and perhaps a little less tolerant of that kind of thing than they were before because we do understand. There's a lot of anxiety out there. The "Washington Post" did this incredible series not long ago about the kind of anxiety people feel out there, people distrustful not just of government but again of all labor institutions and of each other. I think it has many causes, but I do think also that it can have the effect sometimes of if, if our language is too loose, the people on the very fringes use that language as encouragement, as an excuse to go forward with violent acts, and I think ordinary Americans are a lot more conscious of that than we were a year ago and a little less tolerant of that, which is not to say they want laws against the First Amendment, but I do think that they expect people in places of responsibility, whether from Congress to people who have forums on talk radio, to be more responsible in their language.
JIM LEHRER: Because of Oklahoma City, Michael?
MR. BESCHLOSS: I think so, and, you know, we're a society oftentimes that only reforms itself after a catastrophe, and I think one might very well say that if there are a number of mentally unbalanced and demented people out there who are incited to this sort of thing by the intensity of the debate we have seen, the nastiness over the last couple of years, then I think we really can draw a line between those two things and perhaps say that to prevent this kind of thing in the future we really should lower the volume. I think the other thing that this all hinges on is our trying to understand this, and I think this is something that is very much unfinished after a year. You know, one thing--
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
MR. BESCHLOSS: One thing after the Kennedy assassination that Haynes mentioned was one reason I think why people rebelled so much against the idea that John Kennedy was killed by a lone gunman was that to equal this horrible act of the President being cut down, he had to be cut down for a reason beyond simply one demented man, and in a way, this is what we're dealing with here, and I think during the next number of months as the trial goes on in Colorado, you're going to see this odd situation among Americans where on the one hand, perhaps they prefer to have this just a few demented people who caused this, and on the other hand, if that is the case, it would seem that this enormous tragedy, this catastrophe, was much too great to have been caused by something that trivial.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Patrick, finally back to you. The--we had a piece on our program last night from Oklahoma City. A minister in Oklahoma City said those who say we should move on say we cannot move on until there's the trial, until we know what happened, until we know why it happened, et cetera, do not push us to move on too soon, do you agree?
MR. McGUIGAN: I think that's very true here. To bring a sense of closure to the entire community in the broader state but particularly to the families of those who died, people who were so severely injured, I think that that's going to be a very important component. That's one of the reasons people here, I might note, of very divergent political views, were so extremely disappointed with the decision to move the case.
JIM LEHRER: To Denver, the trial to Denver, yeah.
MR. McGUIGAN: Yeah. To move the trial to Denver. Almost--it was almost as if the incredible bombing experience that occurred which manifested the best in human nature, it seemed as if that was then used as evidence against the people of Oklahoma City, so there's that sense, you know, in terms of being able to come up with a jury that would try the case fairly. All the security systems in the world can't replace people who care and people who are willing to sacrifice in order to help other people who are in need. And for me, that will always be the central message of the aftermath of that moment at 9:02 AM a year ago today, is that people came together and put aside everything that you could imagine that would build walls between us and, instead, worked together in a very practical and humane way for a long time. We want to keep that going.
JIM LEHRER: Pat, thank you very much. Richard, thank you in San Francisco, Cynthia, Michael, Haynes, thank you.