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If They Were Americans: Somehow Reassuring, Somehow Disconcerting

April 22, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A crew cut, a tattoo, cigarettes. Overnight, the object of America’s wrath _ and fear _ shifted from the image of foreign zealots bent on making some alien point in Oklahoma City to home-grown fanatics with a made-in-America grievance.

And with it, the country confronted a different kind of worry, in some ways less frightening, in some ways more so.

_Less disconcerting because foreign movements are harder to keep track of, harder to infiltrate and harder to punish than their native counterparts.

_More upsetting because the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City demonstrates a quantum leap in the capacities and aggressiveness of domestic fringe hate groups.

``Radical right-wing groups _ from the survivalists to the neo-Nazis, the Klan _ tend to draw people who don’t fit well into organizations,″ noted Jeffrey Kaplan, a historian at Arctic Sivunmun Ilisagvik College in Barrow, Alaska, who studies violent radicalism in the United States.

``They would never make it in the Middle Eastern terrorism game. They are constantly arguing with each other, constantly splitting and forming new groups and changing ideologies.″

He added, ``The government has fairly thoroughly infiltrated the major radical right-wing groups. They are monitored very closely.″

Overseas, however, the difficulties mount. Lately the Palestinian Hamas group, operating in ``an ethos of martyrdom,″ has engaged in suicide bombings _ ``and if they blow themselves up it is devilishly difficult to make an arrest or track down the co-conspirators,″ Kaplan said.

Dealing with terrorism based abroad drags in foreign policy concerns, presenting complications authorities don’t have to deal with when the suspects are holed up in a compound in Idaho or a cave in New Mexico.

Nothing illustrated that better than Friday’s disclosure that Saudi Arabia _ an American ally _ two weeks ago refused to allow U.S. authorities to arrest a suspect wanted in two terrorist incidents, including the 1983 Beirut car bombing that killed 241 U.S. servicemen.

Terrorism expert Christopher Joyner of Georgetown University said the indications that Americans were behind the Oklahoma bombing underscored the need for good law enforcement _ not more law.

In that regard, he found the pair of arrests a relief. He feared that a foreign involvement in the Oklahoma City assault would have provoked legislation costing all Americans some of their freedoms.

``If these are domestic malcontents who wanted to make some kind of fanatical statement against the government, their acts can be prosecuted under current law,″ Joyner said.

He called the swift arrests reassuring _ ``a powerful commentary on the efficiency of our law enforcement officials when the direction comes from the highest authority.″

Experts spoke cautiously. Little was known about the two suspects _ Timothy McVeigh, arrested within 60 miles and 90 minutes of the bombing and Terry Nichols, who surrendered in Herington, Kan. _ or their potential motives, or if they answered to some higher authority.

``At this point, every evidence indicates that it is domestic in nature,″ was all that Attorney General Janet Reno would say.

From the start, President Clinton urged Americans not to point at foreigners. ``We should not stereotype anybody,″ he implored.

David Little, an expert on ethnic violence at the U.S. Institute of Peace, an independent agency chartered by Congress, said he worried that the anti-government sentiment that characterizes current political life offers cover to ``people who are seized by some kind of passion or grudge or resentment″ against the government.

``With so much anti-federal talk these days, it couldn’t help but cross my mind that people might be encouraged to target the government,″ he said.

On the other hand, he said, religion has been a motivator for terrorist acts, a factor at work abroad and at home, in the Middle East, in Northern Ireland, in the former Yugoslavia _ and in the Branch Davidian movement in Waco, Texas.

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