Skepticism toward government--even a measure of cynicism--is a healthy thing in a democracy. It means people are on guard against an overreaching government. But something has been at work in recent years that goes beyond skepticism or mistrust. It comes down to hate, and in Oklahoma City, the nation has seen first hand what hate can do.
The various paramilitary groups that can be found in so many states, including Missouri, are cauldrons of distrust and suspicion in which hate is easily brewed. Some groups call themselves survivalists, others say they are militias, and all are proud to proclaim themselves patriots. Their credo is that the government is the enemy, and they must arm themselves against it. Under this paranoid scenario, everything the government does is intended to enslave people--income taxes, Social Security numbers and, above all, gun control.
If men want to dress up in battle fatigues and play soldier in the woods, that is harmless enough in itself. But things don't always stop there. For the drilling and the target practice to retain their allure, a threat must loom. It is, of course, the government, that large, impersonal force out there. However, until the attack comes, more immediate threats must be found so as to keep everyone alert and ready to hate. Jews or blacks, or both, usually suffice.
Self-appointed paramilitary groups that soon turn themselves into vigilantes are not new in American history. This surge, though, may owe its growth to that relatively new phenomenon known as hate radio, which unrelievedly preaches contempt of government and ridicule of those in power. President Bill Clinton took note of this disturbing development in Minneapolis Monday, reminding Americans that hate radio hosts' `bitter words can have bitter consequences.'
This is not to say there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the anti-government propaganda of hate radio and what happened in Oklahoma City. Rather, hate radio provides the background music for extremists. Tell people often enough and long enough that their government can do no right and that the people in it are incompetent or dishonest or sinister, and eventually some of them will conclude that the government is a force for evil. Moreover, it is not difficult to find government excesses to cite as supporting evidence. In this way, a small group of unstable people, susceptible to the message of hate, decides to launch a pre-emptive strike, or take retaliatory action, against a government facility.
The risk now is that the country will overreact. The first impulse is to see all paramilitary groups that cavort in the woods as terrorists in training. The second is to think that constitutional rights must be jettisoned to combat the threat they pose. No one wants to make it easy for another Oklahoma City atrocity, but Congress should not give federal law-enforcement authorities the added powers Mr. Clinton has requested without careful thought.
Since the end of World War II, political dissenters, civil rights organizations, anti-war groups and even Earth Day organizers have been the target of government spying and disruption, always in the name of protecting society. Mr. Clinton wants to give law-enforcement agencies greater authority to place people and groups under surveillance on the basis of less evidence. If the tools the FBI and other agencies have now are inadequate, they should be strengthened, of course, but the bombing in Oklahoma City does not automatically mean they are.
The last thing Congress and the administration need to do is prove that the kooks are right.