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Fifteen Years Later: A Grim Anniversary in Oklahoma

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Today marks the 15th anniversary of the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City -- the worst single act of domestic terrorism in our nation's history and a grim reminder of the fruits of right-wing radicalism.

Although Timothy McVeigh and confederates Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier were not card-carrying members of militias, they unquestionably were deeply influenced by the ideas of these paramilitary groups and the larger antigovernment "Patriot" movement. Their murder of 168 people, including 19 children in a day-care center, was in many ways the culmination of the movement's blind anger and conspiracy theories about evil elitists in the government intent on suppressing American freedoms and forcing the nation into a socialistic "New World Order." They also believed they were exacting vengeance on the government for its role in the deaths exactly two years earlier of nearly 80 Branch Davidian religious cultists.

The anniversary comes as the nation witnesses a dramatic resurgence of militias and other Patriot groups -- a comeback driven by widespread populist anger at racial changes in the population, soaring public debt and the terrible economy, the bailouts of bankers and other elites, and an array of initiatives by the Obama Administration that are seen as "socialist" or even "fascist." The return of the Patriots was first documented last August in a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report entitled "The Second Wave: Return of the Militias" and quantified and analyzed in SPLC's March report, "Rage on the Right." Last week, the SPLC released another report profiling 40 key leaders of the resurgent Patriots and their enablers -- people like U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who has suggested that Obama is building political reeducation camps for our children, and Fox News host Glenn Beck, who helped refloat conspiracy theories about secret government concentration camps and has called Obama an anti-white racist who is comparable to Hitler. Along with these profiles, we are releasing a timeline of the Patriot movement detailing its origins, its heyday in the 1990s and current resurgence, and its long history of violence.

The Patriot comeback already has been accompanied by political crime, most dramatically seen in recent days with the arrests of nine Midwestern members of the so-called Hutaree Militia. This self-described group of "Christian" warriors, which equated a world government with the coming of the Antichrist, is accused of plotting to murder a police officer and then use bombs and missiles to kill hundreds more drawn to the funeral in a bid to set off a national insurrection. A few days before those arrests, Mike Vanderboegh, a long-time Alabama militiaman and a current leader of the Patriot group Three Percenters, called on followers to smash windows at Democratic Party offices as a protest against health care reform. In the next 48 hours, a rash of window-breaking and other criminal attacks, including a gas line cut at what was thought to be a congressman's house, occurred across America. These attacks were just the latest in a long string of actions -- detailed in SPLC's "Terror From the Right" -- that are linked to Patriot beliefs since the 1995 bombing.

The motives of those who carry out attacks like these and even Oklahoma City are difficult for most mainstream Americans to fathom. This Monday, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow will present an insightful two-hour documentary, "The McVeigh Tapes: Confessions of an American Terrorist," that helps to answer questions about McVeigh's motivations and those of others like him. The film draws extensively on audiotapes of the two reporters who interviewed McVeigh at length before his execution and features computer-generated recreations of the interviews and the bombing. It also includes interviews with many people involved in the case, including myself. I speak in the documentary based on my experiences as a reporter, covering the bombing and McVeigh's subsequent trial, and my SPLC work monitoring the radical right.

The appearance of the Patriot movement in the 1990s was driven by anger at the federal government, which was then in the hands of another relatively liberal Democratic administration, particularly with regard to such things as land use and environmental regulation; gun control measures imposed by that administration; and more proximate events like the deadly 1992 standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, between federal agents and white supremacist Randy Weaver, and the standoff the following year between federal agents and Davidian cultists in Waco, Texas. Ironically, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing actually helped swell the movement because many Americans came to believe Patriot conspiracy theories about the Clinton Administration bombing its own building in order to so frighten Americans that they would accept draconian anti-terrorism legislation. Later in the 1990s, however, the Patriot movement began to shrink because of revulsion over terrorist plots, a long string of arrests for weapons and other violations, and a loss of energy among adherents. Ultimately, after militia leaders wrongly predicted social collapse at the turn of the millennium (the so-called "Y2K" scare), the movement seemed to fade away.

Today, resurgent anger at the federal government has again caught fire, fueled by an array of factors. The face of the federal government, which is the primary enemy of the Patriot movement, is now a black one -- a fact that has exacerbated rage and fear among many whites who resent ongoing racial changes in the American population. The economy, and the deep misery it has brought to millions of the unemployed, has sparked fury that is in many cases being directed at the government. And a large number of ostensibly mainstream politicians and media commentators, apparently willing to pander shamelessly to the extreme right in a bid for votes or ratings, have recklessly and violently demonized enemies like "liberals" and Latino immigrants and helped to push utterly false conspiracy theories into the mainstream. Together, these factors and others have created a kind of perfect storm favoring the growth of groups on the radical right. Evidence suggesting the rapid spread of these ideas and conspiracy theories can be found in the Tea Parties, many of whose members have adopted them. In many ways, anger at the government seems more entrenched and widespread now than it was during the run-up to the Oklahoma City bombing.

Whether the current Patriot resurgence will lead to another tragedy on the scale of Oklahoma City is impossible to predict. What seems certain, however, is that the antigovernment Patriots and the rest of the radical right are likely to push the nation even further away from any kind of constructive political dialogue. That is the last thing we need as we face a critical moment in steering our country's future course.