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Commentary: What the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing taught us

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It is hard to believe that 20 years have passed. I was taking roll in a public speaking class at Oklahoma City University that fateful morning, and a young woman who was often tardy strolled in at 9:05 and said, “Sorry I’m late, but they just blew up a building over there.” I remember thinking that it was the strangest excuse I had ever heard — until we all learned that it was the terrible truth.

It is not an exaggeration to say that our city’s revival began with the bombing, though that must sound hollow, even cruel, to the victims’ families. We responded in heroic and compassionate ways while the world watched and came together across all our differences because tragedy temporarily transforms human beings.

The lessons learned were many: Terrorists do not just live elsewhere; they live here. First-responders are a special breed, and we owe them gratitude and support. The government is not the enemy; the government is you and I. Hate speech, hate radio and the politics of paranoia can become a deadly combination in the weak-minded and morally bankrupt. Life is not fair, and sometimes you can lose your life just by going to work.

The lessons forgotten are remarkably similar to the lessons learned. On April 19, 1995, we arrested several “Arab-looking” men on suspicion of carrying out the attack for no other reasons than they “looked like terrorists.” The bombing took place on the third anniversary of the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and Timothy McVeigh accepted the theory that the government was guilty of murder in a botched effort to storm the compound to free those inside, including children, who might be otherwise be harmed or killed.

In McVeigh’s mind — bottle-fed on pathological hatred of the government (AM talk radio was in its heyday, and white survivalist movements were preparing patriots for the final battle with the “Clintonistas”) — he actually believed that when the bomb went off, it would spark the second American Revolution. In his mind, you are either “with us” or “against us,” and the lives of the children in the Murrah Building were appropriate collateral damage in his revolution, while the Waco children were martyrs. Hatred works that way. It always has. It still does.

There are more hate groups in Oklahoma today than when McVeigh committed his heinous crime. Our country is more divided, more violent, more addicted to simple divisions of “us” versus “them” than ever before.

People still have bumper stickers on their cars that say about President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign: DO NOT RE-NIG in 2012. We are a federal welfare state that refuses Medicaid money because it is “tainted,” while also claiming to be the deeply Christian keepers of our sisters and brothers.

But you can still lose your life just by going to work, or when your kids go to schools without storm shelters or when disease ravages us because we bought the lie that vaccinations cause autism.

We owe it to the victims and survivors of the bombing to abandon, once and for all, that peculiar Oklahoma notion that ignorance is somehow endearing. Hatred is the stepchild of ignorance, and love is our last, best hope.

Rev. Robin R. Meyers is senior minister of Mayflower UCC in Oklahoma City and Distinguished Professor of Social Justice at Oklahoma City University.

Print headline: Lessons learned, lessons forgotten

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