Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by anti-government extremist Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh's act of domestic terrorism killed 168 people and injured nearly 700 others. Many of the victims were children, who were in a daycare center in the building. At the time it was the largest terrorist attack in the nation's history (since surpassed by 9/11), and it was carried out not by an Islamic fundamentalist, but by an American-born insurrectionist who believed the Second Amendment provided him with an individual right to make war on his own government.
McVeigh explained his philosophy during a conversation with a student reporter at the 1993 federal siege in Waco:
The government is afraid of the guns people have because they have to have control of the people at all times. Once you take away the guns, you can do anything to the people. You give them an inch and they take a mile. I believe we are slowly turning into a socialist government. The government is continually growing bigger and more powerful and the people need to prepare to defend themselves against government control.
In the immediate wake of the bombing, National Rifle Association (NRA) CEO Wayne LaPierre appeared on Meet the Press with Tim Russert to defend his own use of such insurrectionist rhetoric. Just a month earlier, LaPierre had sent a fundraising letter to NRA members, writing, "It doesn't matter to them that the [federal Assault Weapons Ban] gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us. Not too long ago, it was unthinkable for federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens." The same morning LaPierre spoke to Russert, then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS) told newscaster David Brinkley the NRA needed "to get a little image repair job." Days later, former President George H.W. Bush resigned his membership in the NRA, writing, "Your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country. It indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us." Dole then revisited the issue the following summer as he campaigned for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, announcing he would no longer support a repeal of the federal Assault Weapons Ban, the NRA's highest priority.
Two decades later, it's tempting to imagine a happy ending to this story: "Over the years, GOP leaders continued to condemn the insurrectionism of McVeigh and the NRA, making it clear that the use of political violence has no legitimacy in our democratic system of government under the Constitution."
But the truth is far different.
We were reminded of that last week, when Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), a Republican candidate for President, sent a fundraising letter to supporters, telling them, "The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution isn't for just protecting hunting rights, and it's not only to safeguard your right to target practice. It is a Constitutional right... to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny--for the protection of liberty." That from a man who previously wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "The Obama precedent...is opening the door for future lawlessness. As Montesquieu knew, an imperial presidency threatens the liberty of every citizen. Because when a president can pick and choose which laws to follow and which to ignore, he is no longer a president."
There was little criticism from Cruz's Republican colleagues. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham did tell Talking Points Memo, "Well, we tried that once in South Carolina. I wouldn't go down that road again. I think an informed electorate is probably a better check than, you know, guns in the streets." But that was a rather hollow rebuttal given that Senator Graham once bragged about owning an AR-15 so he could shoot people in his neighborhood following a natural disaster.
Many Conservatives have tried to outdo Cruz. Speaking at the NRA's Annual Meeting in Nashville on April 10, Dr. Ben Carson (a retired neurosurgeon) told the organization's faithful:
As I got a little older and approached the teen years, I saw a lot of guns. They weren't necessarily carried by people who were law-abiding citizens, either and I remember seeing people lying on the ground with bullet holes waiting to die. I remember both of my older cousins who we lived with were killed and I remember the drug dealers, many of whom we liked because they brought us candy. I remember the days when they would be killed and there was a lot of carnage that I saw. And then as a surgeon, I spent many a night operating on people with gunshot wounds to their heads; and all of that is horrible. But I can tell you something. It is not nearly as horrible as having a population that is defenseless against a group of tyrants who have arms and that's what we have to always bear in mind in this nation.
A massive banner hung in the ballroom where Carson spoke. It read, "IF THEY CAN BAN ONE, THEY CAN BAN THEM ALL." It showed a picture of the armor-piercing "green-tip" ammunition that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) had recently proposed banning in order to protect law enforcement officers. I was reminded of a conversation that Unibomber Ted Kaczynski reported having with McVeigh in prison:
I said, "So what would I need armor-piercing ammunition for?" In reply, McVeigh indicated I might someday want to shoot at a tank.
As the NRA Convention morphed into a glorified GOP presidential primary campaign event, the lobby's leaders were quick to offer their own insurrectionist marching orders. During a closed-door speech, NRA Board Member Ted Nugent mused about shooting Senator Minority Leader Harry Reid and declared "our government has turned on us." Nugent continued:
Go forth into that quiet night and let our government know we want separation of powers. Tell them to be the watchdogs our Founding Fathers wanted them to be, not to be a united force against the citizens. So take this good [guns] and use it against the bad and the ugly. It's a target rich environment. If it was duck season, there'd be so many ducks, you could just close your eyes and shoot 'em. Don't close your eyes and don't shoot just yet, but plow forward and demand accountability ... So now let's take all that good and crush the bad and the ugly, when we identify the gun-grabbers and freedom-haters.
And then there was retired Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, who gave a presentation at the convention entitled "Sheepdogs! The Bulletproof Mind of the Armed Citizen." Grossman is the creator of a "scholarly study" he calls "Killology." He instructed the NRA members in attendance to become "predators" and added:
The only thing that stops us, Lord willing, from being Mexico, is our armed citizens. You are not unarmed peasants like Mexico, you are armed citizens ... They think they're citizens. They are peasants. They are serfs. You are the nobility. You are the paladin. You are the samurai, entrusted with the tools to preserve our democracy.
This rhetoric from the NRA and modern GOP is not without consequence. I blogged here in February about Open Carry leaders in Texas who have threatened to kill state legislators if they do not approve a bill that would allow the open carry of handguns in public with no permit, background check or training. And as I write this, heavily armed members of the radical anti-government group the Oath Keepers have gathered at the Sugar Pine Mine in Oregon to provoke another standoff with Bureau of Land Management (BLM) agents attempting to temporarily shut it down due to the violation of federal regulations. And these are far from the only threats or acts of insurrectionist violence we've seen in recent years.
When Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Building, he was wearing a t-shirt he purchased at a gun show. It had a picture of President Abraham Lincoln on the front with the words "SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS [THUS ALWAYS TO TYRANTS]." On the back, it featured an excerpt of a quote from Thomas Jefferson: "THE TREE OF LIBERTY MUST BE REFRESHED FROM TIME TO TIME WITH THE BLOOD OF PATRIOTS AND TYRANTS." It's remarkable to think that, 20 years after we buried 168 Americans in a horrific act of terrorism, we are hearing the same exact perverse philosophy being promoted by Republican candidates running for the office of President of the United States.
It's a grim reminder of the absolute grip the NRA has on the modern Republican Party, which has moved much further to the right than it was in 1995. It also makes you wonder just how many people are listening to folks like Ted Nugent and Ted Cruz, and whether one (or more) of them might go as far as Timothy McVeigh did to carry this nightmare vision to fruition.
[Note: Several of the quotes in this piece were taken from the 2001 book "American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh & the Tragedy at Oklahoma City" by Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck.]