What Oklahoma City and Jena Have in Common

Oklahoma City - This is the story of two trees that can serve as symbols of the best and worst in American life.

One is a symbol of hope and reconciliation called the Survival Tree. It is a 90-year-old American elm that stands in the middle of downtown Oklahoma City on the site of what was, until 9/11, the worst act of terrorism on American soil. It was badly damaged in the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that killed 168 people, including 19 children in the building's day care center.

The tree survived and is now surrounded by a circular wall on the highest point of the three-acre Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum that proclaims, "The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us."

The other is an oak tree that once stood on the grounds of the high school in Jena, La. Nooses were hung from its branches last year after six black students sought to join white students sitting under its shade, turning it into a symbol of racial hatred and bigotry. It didn't survive. It was cut down in July before Jena became the flashpoint for the biggest civil rights demonstration of the 21st century.

I haven't been to Jena, but I did see the Survival Tree while in Oklahoma City on Friday. It was shortly after I witnessed a demonstration by several hundred people in support of the so-called Jena 6, the black teenagers caught up in the latest chapter of racial discord that has plagued our nation from its beginning.

The protestors were gathered on the steps of the Oklahoma State Capitol as I walked out after a tour. The rally was similar, if smaller, than those held in Jena and Washington and other parts of the country in recent days as thousands of demonstrators condemned the arrests of the black students as an example of unequal justice.

The Rev. John Reed, a longtime Oklahoma City civil rights leader, told the mostly black audience, many of them carrying handmade signs and wearing T-shirts that said "Free the Jena 6," that Jena was "a wake-up call for most of us black people. The incident in Jena is nothing unusual. That incident is nothing new to us as African American people." And state Sen. Judy Eason McIntrye of Tulsa, whom I'd met in the Capitol earlier, declared, "We as African Americans built this nation and we have every right to enjoy its benefits."

I don't know enough about the facts of the Jena incident to form an opinion, but my gut instinct tells me the demonstrators are justified in claiming unequal treatment, even though the black students were charged with beating a white classmate so badly he was taken to a hospital for treatment. They were tried as adults and one was charged with attempted murder and convicted - by an all-white jury - although the conviction was overturned by an appeals court that ruled he should not have been tried as an adult.

Whatever the facts in the case, the black teenagers weren't evil, like a 27-year-old anti-government fanatic named Timothy McVeigh, who loaded a truck with 4,800 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil and detonated it in directly in front of the nine-story Murragh Building at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995. The explosion, which was felt 40 miles away, created a 30-foot crater and blew away the front of the building, collapsing its floors and trapping victims inside.

I toured the Memorial museum located in a former newspaper building facing the Murragh Building - which was demolished a month later. It too was badly damaged, as were some 300 other buildings. It's a stunning museum, but the most stunning thing is sitting in a darkened room and listening to an audio of a routine hearing underway at the nearby Oklahoma Water Resources Board, and then hearing the actual explosion and confusion that followed.

Equally unforgettable is the news footage taken minutes after the explosion and the video of the chaos that followed as rescue worked tried to dig victims out of the rubble. Especially chilling is the footage from a security camera that captured McVeigh driving his truck past a nearby building just before reaching his target. The axle housing of his truck, which was found 575 feet away from the explosion, is also on display, along with hundreds of personal items and artifacts.

There's much more to see and hear at this incredibly moving Memorial, including the 168 metal chairs arrayed alongside a 318-foot reflecting pool that represent the people who died that terrible day. But one of the most moving sights are hundreds of hand-painted ceramic tiles from children, one of which asks the impossible question: "Can't we all just get along?"

Ironically, my visit took place on the same day that hundreds of people gathered in Littleton, Colo., to dedicate a memorial to the victims of the Columbine High School massacre, and only a month after I had driven from Washington to Oklahoma, passing by both Virginia Tech, site of the latest mass murder of students, and Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., the scene of an historic desegregation battle half a century ago.

History, it seems, constantly confronts us with haunting reminders of the good and evil that human beings are capable of. Oklahoma City still bears many scars, physical and emotional, from that terrible day 12 years ago, but it has found strength and solace in a place where compassion and kindness overcame an evil act of terrorism.

We can only hope that the better angels of our nature that Lincoln once called upon will ultimately prevail in the troubled town of Jena.