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The Inevitable Oklahoma City/Tucson Comparisons, And Why They’re Wrong

Within hours after the shootings in Arizona on Saturday, pundits were already drawing parallels between to the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and that comparison now seems to have become part of the political meme that the shootings have given birth to:

With only a sliver of information yet known about the motivations of Tucson shooter Jared Loughner, any lines drawn between the 22-year old gunman and Oklahoma City mastermind Timothy McVeigh are sketchy at best. But the similarities between the political climate of the mid 1990s and now seem plain.

The Oklahoma City bombing – the 15th anniversary of which was commemorated last spring — occurred not long after a wave election during which midterm voters rewarded Republicans who advocated for shrinking the role of the federal government. The bombing’s chief architect, former soldier McVeigh, railed against government intrusion in American life but was spurred to violence after the federal government’s siege of a white supremacist’s cabin in northern Idaho and a subsequent fatal raid of the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, TX.

(…)

“What is it going to take to open the eyes of our elected officials? America is in serious decline!” McVeigh wrote in a 1992 letter to a New York newspaper.

Similar sentiments were not in short supply. Between late 1992 and October 1995, citizens’ faith in their government had sunk to an all time low, with no national poll finding over 28 percent of respondents saying that they trusted federal authorities.

The lowest point in that era – a Gallup poll in April 1994 finding only 17 percent of Americans saying they trust the government — was matched in 2008, and trust remains at historic lows among Republican voters today.

National sentiment about the Democratic president reflected that discontent. President Bill Clinton’s approval ratings languished well below 50 percent in early April 1995, and, just one day before the Oklahoma attack, the president struggled to argue that he was still “relevant” after the midterm backlash the previous November.

Post-”shellacking” – Obama’s chosen word for the beating Democrats took in the 2010 election – the president’s approval ratings remain similarly stuck in the mid-40s.

Just because there are similarities between the political climate in 1995 and the political climate today, however, doesn’t mean that the shootings in Tuscon implicate the same political issues that the Oklahoma City bombing did.  Timothy McVeigh was a child of a movement that came to light in the early 1990s, but which probably existed in one form or another long before then. The so-called “militia movement” took its inspiration from neo-Nazis, the Klan, conspiracy theorists on everything from the JFK assassination to the moon landing, and it tapped into the general anti-government sentiment that came into being in the early years of the Clinton Administration. What lit the fire for men like McVeigh, though, was the siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas and its disastrous end on April 19, 1993. That date already had significance in the “Patriot” movement because it was the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington & Concord, the spark which gave birth to the American Revolution. To these people, the FBI’s bungled raid in Waco was evidence of a government conspiracy, and the Internet of the early 90s was fully of conspiracy theories and “grand jury proceedings” purporting to indict Janet Reno and Bill Clinton for murder. It was no mistake that McVeigh and Terry Nichols chose the date and location that the did, because the Murrah Building served as the headquarters for the FBI team that was involved in the final raid at Waco.

There was then, at least an argument that could be made in 1995 that the tenor of anti-government rhetoric online and on talk radio (it’s worth noting that neither MSNBC nor Fox News Channel existed at the time) had contributed to the climate that made Oklahoma City possible. That’s not the case this time. There’s no evidence that Jared Lee Loughner was part of any organized political group of any kind. His political views in recent years appear to be a  mixture of far left, far right, and conspiracy theories. Rather than Fox News Channel, he seems to be the type of person who got his news, and formed his beliefs, based on what can be obtained from “alternative” news sources such as Art Bell’s old radio show or websites like Prison Planet at Above Top Secret, where Loughner apparently had an account. There’s anecdotal evidence that he is, at least in some sense, mentally disturbed.Finally, it’s becoming clear that this individual had some kind of obsession with Giffords that stretches back to 2007, long before the current political climate came into existence. So, as I argued here yesterday, there really aren’t any political lessons to be drawn from this event.

That isn’t stopping people from trying to do so, of course, and perhaps the most offensive manner in which that is happening is the speculation that is occurring about how President Obama might be able to benefit politically from the cold-blooded murder of six people by a lunatic:

Of all the unfulfilled campaign promises President Barack Obama made in 2008, the one that bothers the president most isn’t any squandered policy priority – it’s his failure to re-civilize what he views as an increasingly savage partisan climate.

Obama idolizes Lincoln, and like his fellow Illinoisan he sees himself as a warrior by compulsion, forced by circumstance to take up arms against political adversaries instead of following his preferred path of reconciliation, civility and compromise.

In that regard, the shootings in Tucson on Saturday, which he has decried as a “national tragedy,” present a critical opportunity to a president at a crossroads, a chance for Obama to elevate the debased tenor of politics, much as President Bill Clinton attempted in the aftermath of the 1995 terrorist attack in Oklahoma City.

(…)

Of all the unfulfilled campaign promises President Barack Obama made in 2008, the one that bothers the president most isn’t any squandered policy priority – it’s his failure to re-civilize what he views as an increasingly savage partisan climate.

Obama idolizes Lincoln, and like his fellow Illinoisan he sees himself as a warrior by compulsion, forced by circumstance to take up arms against political adversaries instead of following his preferred path of reconciliation, civility and compromise.

In that regard, the shootings in Tucson on Saturday, which he has decried as a “national tragedy,” present a critical opportunity to a president at a crossroads, a chance for Obama to elevate the debased tenor of politics, much as President Bill Clinton attempted in the aftermath of the 1995 terrorist attack in Oklahoma City.

One anonymous Democrat was even more blunt about what he wanted to see the President do in the wake of this tragedy:

One veteran Democratic operative, who blames overheated rhetoric for the shooting, said President Barack Obama should carefully but forcefully do what his predecessor did.

“They need to deftly pin this on the tea partiers,” said the Democrat. “Just like the Clinton White House deftly pinned the Oklahoma City bombing on the militia and anti-government people.”

Another Democratic strategist said the similarity is that Tucson and Oklahoma City both “take place in a climate of bitter and virulent rhetoric against the government and Democrats.”

The naked cynicism of this kind of analysis cannot be understated. People like this aren’t concerned with actually discovering what might have caused Jared Lee Loughner to go off his rocker and kill 6 people while wounding 14 others. If they were, they’d be talking about the horrible state of mental health care in this country and the fact that, to a large degree, it is still considered a stigma in many quarters to even seek treatment for problems like depression and schizophrenia. They aren’t even worried so much about the people who actually died except to figure out how they can use their bloody corpses to advance their political aims. As Nick Gillespie writes at Reason today, if you want to find something wrong with America today, it would be better to look at the reaction to Saturday’s events:

The problem isn’t with the current moment’s rhetoric, it’s with the goddamn politicization of every goddamn thing not even for a higher purpose or broader fight but for the cheapest moment-by-moment partisan advantage. Whether on the left or on the right, there’s a totalist mentality that everything can and should be explained first and foremost as to whether it helps or hurt the party of choice.

This isn’t exclusively a left wing phenomenon, because conservatives do it too. Every event, every tragedy, everything that happens is analyzed through partisan blinders and each side determines what the “right” and “wrong” position is. The fact that their analysis often has very little to do with reality doesn’t seem to occur to, or bother, them. In this case, the media is making the comparison to Oklahoma City not because it’s true, but because it fits into the approved talking points this time around.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. An Interested Party says:

    “The problem isn’t with the current moment’s rhetoric, it’s with the goddamn politicization of every goddamn thing not even for a higher purpose or broader fight but for the cheapest moment-by-moment partisan advantage. Whether on the left or on the right, there’s a totalist mentality that everything can and should be explained first and foremost as to whether it helps or hurt the party of choice.”

    Hmm…I’m trying to remember if there was this same soul searching after 9/11, which was most definitely used for political ends, such as the invasion of Iraq and the 2002 mid-terms…

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  2. wr says:

    A rush to politicize this? It was a poltical assassination. It was a political act. And it wasn’t the first.

    What’s remarkable here is not that people jumped all over the assassination right away and started indicting right wing eliminationists, but that the right has been so successful at keeping this out of the conversation after the last few extreme right cranks have committed acts of mass murder. Some gun nut opens fire at a chuch specifically because he wants to kill liberals — and all we hear is the comforting sound of “hush, hush, let’s not bring politics into this.”

    EVery time an evil rightie commits an atrocity, we’re supposed to add a couple more items to the list of things never to be talked about — gun control, the murderous insanity of Operation Rescue, not it’s the open calls for violence and murder from the establishment right.

    Sorry, Doug, not this time.

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  3. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    WR, list the extreme right gun cranks who have committed mass murder or STFU.

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  4. tps says:

    “murderous insanity of Operation Rescue”? Since when?? Yes there were bombings, back in the 90′s. Yes there were abortion doctors killed like the one in Kansas a few years ago. What there has not been is an active campaign like ALF. Don’t talk silly.

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  5. wr says:

    Well, Zels, ignoring impotent old fools who only like to threaten mass murder, there was the guy who shot up the church in Tennessee because he wanted to murder liberals. There was the old guy in DC who shot a museum guard. I guess we can excuse the one who flew his plane into the IRS building in the Southwest, because he used a vehicle as his choice of weapon instead of a gun.

    And TPS, when your defense of a terrorist organization begins with “yes, there were bombings, yes, there were murders,” it might be just as well to leave it alone…

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  6. tom p says:

    Zels, off the top of my head: Eric Rudolph and Timothy McVeigh

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  7. Neil Hudelson says:

    Wow, I don’t think Zels has ever typed anything as stupid as that statement. He’s set a new bar for all other winger nutjobs to reach.

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  8. Terrye says:

    wr:

    Oh come on. It was a political assassination by a deranged young man who considered The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf and Alice in Wonderland to be some of his favorite books. You are an example of exactly what Doug is talking about. Before those poor people were even out of surgery you and your ilk were drooling with anticipation at the mileage you could get out of their suffering.

    It is disgusting.

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  9. Terrye says:

    And Rudolph and McVeigh were not right wingers, they were not Republicans for heavens sakes…neither were Sirhan Sirhan or Lee Harvey Oswald.

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  10. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Well, I am watching Beck and he just showed a bunch of lefties who the media got wrong about their political leanings who intended to, or did kill many. Fla. school board shooting. You quickly scoff, yet I see no names other than those from years ago and I do not think you can attach politics to. The guy in Tennesee was one of yours not one of ours and so was the DCshooter at the Museum. People from the right don’t shoot up churches, we go to them not to shoot but to pray.
    Neil, looks like you are sucking on a glass pipe. If I am a nut you are a genius, and we know you are no genius.
    Tom, where is the party affiliation of Rudolph or McVeigh? Were they members of something that did not exist at that time? The Tea Party? Are you capable of logic? Even simple logic?
    Well, how about this. That left leaning sheriff in Pima County knew of death threats the perp had issued, yet failed to act because a family member worked for the county. Notice how quickly he blamed others. You bloody liars would walk on that little 9 year olds grave to forward your leftist agenda. Truely scum. This whole incident will backfire on those who try to place blame on the right or the Tea Party. Once again, it was one of yours not one of ours.

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  11. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Who knew? Turns out someone on Facebook has a copy of dude’s voter registration. Seems Jered is a REGISTERED DEMOCRAT. No doubt from a family of registered democrats who thought the Congresswoman was just a tad too moderate.
    We will be serving crow in the main dining room. Please enter through the left side doors.

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  12. tom p says:

    Zels, you asked for right leaning whackos and I gave you 2 off the top of my head. You now assert they were not… Find me some one who agrees with you and I will happily show you they were as whacko as you.

    >>>Well, I am watching Beck and he just showed a bunch of lefties who the media got wrong about their political leanings who intended to, or did kill many. <<<

    Zels, you're point is what? That whackos on the left do it so it is OK if whackos on the right do it too? Quoting Beck…. I will gladly quote Stewart.

    "Tom, where is the party affiliation of Rudolph or McVeigh? "

    Last time I checked ZELS, whackos don't give a party affiliation, they just go out and kill people with whatever flimsy excuse they can hang their actions on. ("BLACK HELICOPTERS!") ("BUSH IS TRYING TO TAKE AWAY OUR HABEUS CORPUS RIGHTS!!!!") (Bush KNEW ABOUT 9/!! !!!!!!!!!!!!)

    Oh wait a minute, that 2nd one is true. (and for the record, Obama doubled down on it)

    MOST everyone agrees that Rudolph and McVeigh were right wing whackos… sorry if you are just plain whacko….

    And Zels, watching Beck is hazardous to ones mental health.

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  13. An Interested Party says:

    “Once again, it was one of yours not one of ours.”

    What a pathetic and disgusting game to play…of course, we should expect as much from someone who has made threats againsts others here in the past…

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  14. wr says:

    Zels — I won’t waste anyone’s time responding to most of your moronic drivel, but the church shooter went there specifically because he wanted to kill liberals. I know you have this psychotic fantasy that all liberals hate the Baby Jesus and all righties just want to love on him all day, but to say that this would-be mass murderer was a liberal because conservatives go to churches to pray, therefore anyone who wants to shoot churchgoers is a leftie is not only the dumbest, but also the sickest thing your crack addled excuse for a brain has ever vomited out.

    I realize this is hard, because you take great pleasure in threatening mass murder and you’re probably terrified you won’t be able to for a while, but please, just go away for a while.

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  15. G.A.Phillips says:

    Zelsdorf why do you even waste your time telling the truth to these brain washed fools.

    These Morons are still trying to exploit this tragedy and lie about every single case that they have gotten wrong by rushing to try fit it into their delusional perceptions of what they seek to be reality. They are still lying to themselves and each other after all this time, many days, months and in some cases years after the evidence should have set them strait.

    For the rest of you lying progressive opportunists.

    http://www.glennbeck.com/2011/01/10/glenns-letter-to-the-american-people-politicians-and-media/

    Sign up, stop the propaganda, stop the lies, make a stand. Best of all get to know something about the man you hate and lie about every day.

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  16. tom p says:

    GA…. you actually listen to Glenn Beck? You have my sympathies. I repeat: Glenn Beck is hazardous to one’s mental health.

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  17. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***GA…. you actually listen to Glenn Beck? You have my sympathies. I repeat: Glenn Beck is hazardous to one’s mental health.***Naw I watch his show, I think he is to much of a wise a$$ on the radio.

    I listen to Rush, Mark Levin, Mark Belling, Jay Weber, Vickie Mckenna, and James T. Harris on the radio. WISN is the $hit.

    James T Harris is on WTMJ Home of the PACKERS!!!!!!!

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  18. Ronin says:

    Comment in violation of site policies deleted.

    Those wishing to buy advertising should send inquiries to otb@blogads.com

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  19. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***Those are all exclusively right wing extremist views or acts***lol WTF?

    -a gun nut
    -anti-government
    -anti-abortion
    -anti-immigrant
    -pro gold standard
    -targeted and killed Democrats, not Republicans
    -a 9/11 truther

    Whats your problem man, can you type anything other then a talking point?

    you have listed one conspiracy view, one evil deed, a great cause, what the only standard for a currency should be, a stereotype, and let me ask you this, WHO IN THE GREAT GOOFY ******* WORLD is anti immigrant ?!?!?!?!

    Plus I heard the dude prayed to some satanic alter and wanted to use weed for money, sounds very mainstream liberal to me.

    a Little test…. BUSH.

    Now don’t lie and tell me some anti government sentiment just popped into your empty little head…

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