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The Oklahoma Tragedy and the Mass Media


The hundreds of pictures and thousands of words that have appeared in the popular press since the Oklahoma City bombing tell us much about America and its people. The images and descriptions of the killed and wounded have aroused the sympathy and concern of millions of Americans. Countless prayers have been offered for the dead and those they left behind, and charitable contributions have been sent from every corner of the country to assist in the wake of a terrible human tragedy. Once again, Americans have shown themselves to be a generous and caring people, in the tradition that has been the hallmark of all previous generations since the founding of the nation.

In those pictures and words, however, has emerged another side of contemporary America. It has to do with how many reporters, opinion-makers, intellectuals, and political analysts see America, because those numerous stories about various aspects of the Oklahoma tragedy have not only contained the facts of the case and the surrounding circumstances, but interpretations, as well, that have given the facts a particular shade and color. In other words, these molders of public opinion have attempted to convince us what the Oklahoma tragedy is supposed to mean in terms of American politics and culture.

With few exceptions, the mass media and popular press generally have had one interpretive narrative running through all the stories and commentaries: America is threatened by a minority of “right-wing” extremists who preach hate for and fear of the U.S. government; this minority is obsessed with a desire to arm itself to the teeth with all types of weaponry and is forming itself into citizenry militias that pose a danger all across the land; this minority is linked to or influenced by racist and neo-Nazi organizations; and even when these groups outwardly disown violence, their rhetoric and arguments are the feeding ground for creating “crazies” who are willing to commit terrorist acts against the government and innocent people.

The uniformity of this interpretation demonstrates just how much the mass media and many in the intellectual community are out of step with what is actually going on in America and how influenced they are by the “spin” given to events in the briefings and handouts supplied by various government agencies. The reporters, intellectuals, and political analysts who dominate that mass media basically buy into the “party line” of the government establishment.

But what else can one expect? After all, they went through the same propaganda mill of state education from kindergarten to graduate school. They all tend to look upon the state as the benevolent redistributor of wealth and the caring social engineer who will remove the blemishes of an unjust market society. They all tend to view themselves as the educated elite who see and know so much more than the average middle-class American who populates that vast wasteland that separates New York from San Francisco.

Let us look at some of their misunderstandings of the Oklahoma tragedy.

Who is responsible? Typical of the collectivist mentality and its corollary of collective guilt, the mass media immediately picked up on President Clinton’s theme that it was not the actual bomber who was responsible for the act of terrorism in Oklahoma City. No, it was the purveyors of hate and anger on talk radio and the Internet, whose sick conception of the government made the perpetrator do it. He could not help himself — the evil hatemongers made him do it. To admit that the perpetrator had acted on the basis of his own free will would mean that he was responsible for his actions and their consequences. This is too much for the collectivists in our midst, who have cultivated the ideology of a “nation of victims,” to accept. Without this ideological anchor, what would be left of their aging rationales for redistribution and social safety nets and the political power that comes with these government policies?

Who are these hatemongers, with their antigovernment paranoia ? According to Time (May 8, 1995), “Most are not violent people, and many of them have understandable grievances about feeling left behind in the economic competition of the 1990s.” Yes, even many of the hatemongers and paranoids who made the perpetrator do it are themselves victims, according to the thinking of those in the mass media. They are supposedly the latest victims of capitalism; these are the people who lost their jobs when heartless corporations moved jobs overseas in search of cheap labor. They feel resentful as the benevolent state tries to compensate for the injustices of the past through humane affirmative-action policies. And in search of “simplistic” answers to “complex” problems, these “simple people” encapsulate all their frustrations in the government, which has let them down.

That many of the people who have expressed concern and fear of the government have done so because the state has increasingly threatened or suppressed various individual freedoms is apparently beyond the understanding of the enlightened scribes of the mass media. To take seriously the ordinary American’s perspective might undermine their idyllic fantasy of the paternalistic state — a state that knows what is better for the people than the people themselves.

What freedoms have been lost or threatened that drives these “extremists” and “paranoids”? The establishment press has enumerated many of the concerns about lost liberties that many of these Americans are fearful of losing. In the Western states, there has emerged a growing movement in opposition to the encroachment of the federal government over land use, water rights, and government’s abrogation of the private title to property in the name of “environmental protection.” State and local governments have lost their traditional authority to an overpowerful and overbearing Washington. Tax burdens confiscate the income and wealth of those who have earned it in the marketplace; the Federal Reserve System possesses an unlimited authority to print paper money in any quantity deemed desirable by the monetary central planners. The taxing and money-monopoly powers of the federal government, therefore, threaten the economic well-being of every American.

Federal agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms run roughshod over the rights of the citizenry, the cruelest and most brutal example being the massacre of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, in April 1993. Even one of the members of the jury at the Branch Davidian trial following the massacre said afterwards: “The federal government was absolutely out of control there. We spoke in the jury room about the fact that the wrong people were on trial, that it should have been the ones that planned the raid and orchestrated it and insisted on carrying out this plan who should have been on trial.” (For one of the best articles on the federal siege, attack, and destruction of the Branch Davidian compound and the perverse trial and sentencing of some of the survivors, see “Waco: A Massacre and Its Aftermath” by Dean M. Kelley, First Things , May 1995.) Those who have chosen to arm themselves and train in the proper use of weaponry have concluded that the greatest danger to their life and property may come from “out-of-control” federal agencies that seem to stand outside the law and appear to be answerable to no one except themselves.

But in the eyes of the establishment press, these are “macho males” wanting to “play war-games” in battle fatigues on weekends. The vast majority of those who report and write analyses for the mass media cannot understand why the “progressive” functions, responsibilities, and powers of the government cause such consternation among a growing number of Americans. Their articles ooze with sneering sarcasm and ridicule. Viewing themselves as enlightened moderns, they do not even realize that they are dominated in their own thinking by that a-thousand-times refuted socialist idea that private-property rights can be abolished or significantly diminished with no loss of personal rights and civil liberties.

But all rights ultimately arise from private-property rights and can only be retained in the long run when they are respected and protected. And the first of these property rights is the right of self-ownership and the corollary right of self-defense, regardless of whether the aggressor is another individual or the state.

What is “right-wing” extremism? What makes someone “right-wing” in the eyes of the establishment press? From the descriptions offered in the mass media, a “right-winger” advocates strict constitutional constraints on the powers of the government; believes in the federalist principle of a division of powers among the national, state, and local levels of government, with primary decision-making at the local level because it is closest to the people’s control; views that individuals should be secure in their lives, papers, and property from arbitrary searches and seizures; and considers that individuals should be self-responsible for the economic well-being of their families and the moral education of their children. And what makes someone a right-wing “extremist”? An extremist is anyone who actually takes these ideas seriously, believing that they represent the foundation of any free society and are worth defending.

The mass media tries to muddy the waters by saying that many of these “right-wing extremist” groups are connected with or influenced by racist, neo-Nazi or fascist “radical extremists.” The attempt to lump together strict constitutionalist individualism with neo-Nazism or fascism just shows how much those who write for the establishment press are still trapped in the Stalinist thinking of the 1930s, when the communist political lexicon declared that fascism was the extreme, last line of defense of capitalism and only the “progressive left” led by communists represented truth and goodness.

Who is the fascist ? Individualism and the political philosophy of limited government is not only inconsistent with but is the exact opposite of fascism and Nazism. Under fascism and Nazism, the state reigns supreme with absolute power over everyone and all forms of property. It can well be asked: Who is the fascist, when the president of the United States and many Democrats and Republicans in Congress call for expanded authority for the FBI and other federal security agencies to intrude into the lives of the American citizenry? Who is the fascist, when the call is made for increased power for the FBI to undertake “roving wiretapping” or have easier access to the telephone and credit-card records of the general population? Who is the fascist, when the proposal is made to make it easier for the FBI to investigate and infiltrate any political organization or association because the government views it as a potential terrorist danger?

Who is the fascist, when it is proposed that a foreign resident or visitor in the United States should be open to deportation without a full disclosure of the supposed terrorist evidence against him? Who is the fascist, when it is proposed that the president should have the discretion to decide what foreign organization or association is peaceful or potentially violent and, therefore, whether Americans shall be permitted to voluntarily donate to it?

Who is the fascist, when it is suggested that perhaps shortwave transmission licenses should be revoked because some in the government or on the political left do not like what others say in their exercise of free speech? Who is the fascist, when the critics of “right-wing extremism” hint that perhaps the government might have to regulate Internet, because the critics do not like the ideas that others choose to share among themselves?

Where do we go from here ? The deaths in the Oklahoma City bombing were indeed a tragedy for America. That tragedy, however, will only be compounded if we allow ourselves to be taken down the road of even more government powers and controls because of the rhetorical and ideological biases that still dominate political and mass-media discourse in the United States. We have reached this point in America because of the distance we have already traveled down that road. Let us, instead, retrace our steps and find the road of freedom once again. We need a society in which everyone is safe and secure in his personal liberty, private property, and in his voluntary and peaceful associations with his fellow men. In the end, that more than anything else would heal the hurt, diminish the fear, and remove the anger that is causing divisions in our country. And the tragedies of both Waco and Oklahoma City could then pass into history, remaining only as lessons for us to remember and to learn from.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).