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Oklahoma City Marks Decade Since Federal Building Bombing

The Rev. Dan O'Connel, a retired professor, now living in St. Louis, views the chairs at the Oklahoma City Memorial
Ten years ago on April 19, Americans were forced to confront the reality that they, too, could be killed by terrorists, and that those terrorists don't always come from the other side of the world. Long before September 11, 2001, there was April 19th, 1995 - the day 168 people were killed by a bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. At the time, it was the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil.

April 19, 1995, was a sunny day in Oklahoma City. By 9 a.m., the Murrah Federal Building downtown was crawling with people - government employees who were just getting settled at their desks. Mexican immigrants who were applying for visa extensions and green cards, children who attended the day-care center on the building's second floor. And then, at 9:02, hell broke lose.

"One half of the building is sheared away. The entire side. You can see debris and pieces of the construction hanging down the entire six stories. It's as if somebody came and sheared off the entire half of the building."

That's a reporter for KFOR-TV, one of the first media outlets on the scene. In the hours and days that followed, more reporters would arrive, gathering the grim details: 168 people were dead. The oldest was 73, the youngest just four months old. Bud Welch lost his daughter, Julie, who worked for the Social Security Administration. "Julie left the rear of the Murrah building on the first floor and walked to the Social Security waiting room to get her client, who had been brought by a friend of his. Julie and the two men were returning to her office and got about mid-way through the building when the bomb went off at 9:02. That was Wednesday morning, and all three bodies were found together on Saturday," he says.

Then-President Bill Clinton quickly condemned the attacks - calling the unknown perpetrators "cowards" and "murderers". The media called them "terrorists," and there was little doubt on America's airwaves as to where these terrorists had come from. After all, just two years earlier, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman and eight other Muslim extremists had tried to blow up the World Trade Center in New York City.

That was the sort of media speculation that preceded a press conference the day after the attack. So imagine everyone's surprise when Janet Reno - Attorney General at the time - told reporters the FBI had two suspects, and then described them. "Investigators have identified a vehicle that was used in connection with yesterday's attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City. They have determined that two white males, each with a medium build, were associated with that vehicle," she said.

Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Two men who'd been born and raised in the United States. Americans were forced to accept more than just the fact that they could be killed by terrorists. They were forced to accept the reality that those terrorists could be their friends and neighbors.

"I think it would behoove all of us to remember the very severe lesson we learned after Oklahoma City, which is, you know, red-blooded American boys are quite capable, it turns out, of murdering their countrymen in very large numbers," says Mark Potok, who monitors "domestic extremism" for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.

He says in the ten years since the Oklahoma City bombing, more than 40 domestic plots against the United States have been foiled by law enforcement agents. Among those arrested is a man named William Krar, a white supremacist from Texas who in 2003 was found in possession of a sodium cyanide bomb. The weapon could have killed hundreds of people had it been detonated - but there was very little media coverage of Mr. Krar's arrest. Certainly nothing like the coverage of the so-called "Lackawana Five" - members of an al-Qaeda-based terrorist cell who were arrested in upstate New York in 2002.

"Had William Krar been wearing a turban; had William Krar been a Muslim; had William Krar been a foreigner, I think there's no doubt whatsoever that the news of his arrest and the details of what he was up to would have been trumpeted from the rooftops in Washington," says Mr. Potok.

He says there wasn't any conspiracy to cover up the arrest of William Krar. Americans just weren't interested in hearing about it. He says the events of September 11, 2001, were so horrific, and so spectacular, that Americans have been distracted from the domestic threats they were forced to confront in Oklahoma City ten years ago.

Daniel Levitas is author of The Terrorist Next Door, an analysis of the anti-government militia movement in America. He agrees with Mark Potok, saying, "in the mind of the average American, the threat and danger posed by an individual like Timothy McVeigh pales in comparison to the images that they carry in their mind about the dangers posed by al-Qaeda or foreign groups."

And that's a problem, says Daniel Levitas, because Americans are responsible for more than 90 percent of the acts of terrorism committed on American soil over the last 20 years. Last week's guilty plea issued by Eric Robert Rudolph, the so-called "Olympic Park Bomber," is a reminder of that. Mr. Rudolph killed two people and injured 150 in a series of bombings in the late 1990s that were designed to protest the government's policies on abortion and homosexuality.

Still, Daniel Levitas says even though September 11 distracted Americans - and law enforcement authorities, to some extent - from the threat of domestic terrorism, the events of that day also did much to undermine the recruitment efforts of anti-government militia groups. He says the patriotic environment that has grown up in America in the wake of September 11 has made it very difficult for these groups to "sell" Americans on the idea of killing their countrymen.