Copyright 1995 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.
The Toronto Star
April 27, 1995, Thursday, METRO EDITION
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. A21
LENGTH: 735 words
HEADLINE: U.S. democracy on trial after terror in the heartland
BYLINE: By Stephen Handelman Toronto Star
DATELINE: NEW YORK
NEW YORK - TIMOTHY McVeigh says he is a political prisoner.
Shackled in the jail cell where he is facing questions about his alleged role in the Oklahoma city bombing, the one-time U.S. Army sergeant refuses to disclose anything more than his "name, rank and serial number."
Meanwhile, America's infamous "Unabomber," whose latest package of deadly explosives - his 16th mail bomb in 17 years - killed a forestry lobbyist in Sacramento last week, asserts in a public letter "the right to engage in sabotage" for a political cause.
Americans, who once found it easy to distinguish between domestic criminals and foreign terrorists, are finding this difficult to digest.
Political crime is supposed to be something that happens in other places.
This is not precisely true. During the 1960s, militant fringe groups engaged in their own version of violent debate with the U.S. "establishment."
From the assassination of John Kennedy to the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, political violence (to paraphrase former Black Panther H. Rap Brown) is "as American as apple pie."
All the same, there is a qualitative difference in the menace stalking America's towns and cities today.
The highly organized and well-armed militias of the right appeal to a much larger and more determined audience than their left-wing counterparts ever did.
Fuelled by a national concern about America's declining influence in the world and about the "softening" of American values, these groups are camouflaged by the country's mainstream.
They can blend easily into the church hall and drugstore culture of Middle America because they embody, in a twisted way, the deepest fears of millions of their compatriots.
That may be one reason why President Bill Clinton's pledge to strengthen the powers of law enforcement agencies against terrorism has struck such a powerful chord.
A majority of Americans supports proposals made by Clinton this week that would give federal agents power to monitor telephone calls and check the personal records of anyone "suspected" of involvement with terrorism.
Some would call it a perfect example of cutting off one's nose to spite the face.
But ultra-conservative politicians and their constituencies appear to believe only the most radical surgery will eliminate the connections people might make between their own rhetoric and the fanatics who have taken up arms in their name.
The bitter reaction of conservative talk radio hosts across America to Clinton's suggestion that they have helped to create the climate for Oklahoma city is a case in point.
They are at least being oddly consistent. The same people applauded the crackdown on U.S. left-wing groups in the 1960s, when the FBI collected information on thousands of innocent people.
The controversy stirred up by that assault on civil liberties was the principal reason why the powers of federal agencies were sharply curtailed by American governments since.
Now once again a small minority of Americans is warning against Clinton's measures and his plan to enact an "omnibus anti-terrorism" law.
"Our fundamental liberties are never more in danger than after incidents such as (Oklahoma city)," said Philip Gustis of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We must guard against overreacting."
Unfortunately, overreaction is the norm around the world.
Canada's actions during the FLQ crisis provide one example of how countries have found it difficult to strike a balance between protecting civil liberties and smashing terrorism.
This was a simple problem compared to today's high-tech environment, in which terrorists enjoy easy access to means of destruction and the methods of delivering them.
"Transnational" criminal cartels are the globe's newest entrepreneurs, transcending borders and arousing calls for a harsh legal response.
Yet law enforcement authorities often admit privately they already have sufficient intelligence and legal means to counter these new threats to international stability.
What usually is lacking is the will to co-operate and share information among often competing agencies.
And the political courage to isolate the groups even when, as America is discovering, they come from the heartland.
The horror of Oklahoma city has plunged the United States into a crucial debate over redefining democracy. It will be closely watched around the world.