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Leonard Pitts: ‘The Government’ is us

On Sunday, it will be 20 years since the morning a bomb destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and took 168 human lives. Nineteen of those lives belonged to children.

Maybe it takes you by surprise that it has been so long. Maybe you wonder where the time went. And maybe you remember…

…the ghastly pictures of that building, the front of it sheared away.

…the firefighter emerging from the rubble, tenderly cradling that dying baby.

…the bloody and lacerated people wandering dazedly from the wreckage.

…the breathless speculation that surely the culprits had to be Muslims.

And maybe you remember, too, that sense of vertiginous shock some people felt when we got our first look at the man who planted the bomb and discovered him to be, not a swarthy Muslim with a heavy beard and hard-to-pronounce name, but a clean-cut, apple pie-faced young white man named Timothy McVeigh. People could not have been more nonplussed if Richie Cunningham had shot up a shopping mall.

But the tragedy was to contain one last surprise. It came when we learned why McVeigh committed his atrocity. It seems he hated the government.

That revelation was our introduction to a world whose very existence most of us had never suspected. Meaning the so-called patriot movement, the armed, radical right-wing extremists who refuse to recognize the authority of the nation’s duly constituted and elected government. Maybe you remember the news reports of how they spent nights and weekends drilling in the woods, playing soldier in anticipation of the day ZOG — the Zionist Occupied Government — ceded the country to the United Nations and soldiers of the New World Order came rappelling down from black helicopters to seize everybody’s guns. Maybe you remember how crazy it all sounded.

But that was then.

Twenty years ago, the idea of anti-government resistance seemed confined to a lunatic fringe operating in the shadows beyond the mainstream. Twenty years later, it is the mainstream, the beating heart of the Republican Party. And while certainly no responsible figure on the right advocates or condones what he did, it is just as certain that McVeigh’s violent antipathy toward Washington, his conviction that America’s government is America’s enemy, has bound itself to the very DNA of modern conservatism.

It lives in Grover Norquist’s pledge to shrink government down until “we can drown it in the bathtub,” in Chuck Norris’ musing about the need for “a second American revolution,” in Michele Bachmann’s fear that the census is an evil conspiracy.

It lives in dozens of right-wing terror plots documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center since the 1995 bombing, including last year’s murder of two police officers and a Wal-Mart shopper by two anti-government activists in Las Vegas. It lives in Cliven Bundy’s armed standoff with federal officials.

These days, it is an article of faith on the political right that “government” is a faceless, amorphous Other. But this government brought itself into being with three words — “We the people” — and they are neither incidental nor insignificant. Our government may be good, may be bad, may be something in between, but as long as we are a free society, the one thing it always is, is us.

Meaning: a manifestation of our common will, a decision a majority of us made.

We are allowed to be furious at it, but even in fury, we always have peaceful tools for its overthrow. So there is never a reason to do what McVeigh did.

We all know that, of course. But 20 years after the day they brought babies out of the rubble in pieces would be an excellent time to pause and remind ourselves, just the same.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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