The Globalization of Heartland Terror: Reflections on the Oklahoma City Bombing

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a publication in The Critical Criminologist 8(1), 1997.
Also available as pdf file.

A longer version of this article is also available online.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 1997. “The Globalization of Heartland Terror: Reflections on the Oklahoma City Bombing.” The Critical Criminologist, Newsletter of the ASC Critical Criminology Division (Fall 1997), p. 5.

The bombing in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 raises a number of human-rights concerns on international dimensions of police and crime. The most striking response immediately following the bombing, clearer even than the loud and angry cries to bring the perpetrators to justice, was the utter outrage that such a ferocious act had taken place in America. The recognition was so devastating that to bridge the severe clash between expectation and reality, the guilty were readily presumed to come from abroad, Terrorism in America did not make sense if it had not originated from outside America’s borders. During the first public address on the bombing, President Clinton stated that convicting the perpetrators was "not a question of anybody’s country of origin,...not a question of anybody’s religion." This disclaimer, of course, only made sense in view of a suspicion towards Middle-Eastern Muslims. The day of the bombing, the FBI immediately sent an interpreter in Arabic to Oklahoma City.

Arab-American organizations felt an urgent need to condemn the bombing, which betrayed how much they too were pondering the possibility of foreign involvement, or at least combating the perceptions they felt others might harbor. And, the fact that Muslim organizations denounced the act of terror, raised money for the victims, and provided care to survivors, did not halt the arrest of at least four Middle-Eastern men and several instances of abuse against Muslim Americans. A few hours after news of the bombing hit the airwaves, Suhair Al Mosawi, a Muslim refugee from Iraq, had someone throw a rock tbrough a window of her home in Oklahoma City. Frightened by the event, Mrs. Al Mosawi, who was 7 months pregnant, gave birth to a stillborn boy. Ills name has not been listed among the victims of the bombing.

Racism and the prevailing conception of terrorism as a foreign phenomenon went hand in hand with an all too human inclination to attribute all that is evil to forces far away, beyond one’s familiar surroundings. The initial blaming of Muslim fundamentalists revealed how important it is to place the blame for any wrongdoing outside one’s society. But, the suspects charged with the bombing are fellow Americans. Terrorisn-4 at first tightly intertwined with an evil taking place only abroad, or at least originating from afar, was now undifferentiated and domestic.

Response in the Aftermath of the Bombing

The reawakening of the Omnibus Counterterrorism Act provided the forum for legislative and police responses to thwart terrorism. Debate on the Bill, reintroduced and reamended, flared in the aftermath of a bombing *whose suspects are American citizens. But the proposed measures affect mostly foreigners suspected of terrorism. Recent Senate hearings heavily discussed the tagging of explosive materials and handgun restrictions, but provisions to ease deportation of aliens have slipped through the maze of Congressional debate.

The enduring concentration on the foreign element in the terrorism debate is one of the most striking results of the Oklahoma City bombing. Reminders that terrorism is first and foremost a threat from abroad have remained manifold. Statements were made that dealing with dangerous domestic cults and violent individuals is trickier, apparently because it poses civil-liberties concerns. The control of foreign suspects, it seems, does not.

None of these issues should distract from the gruesome terror that hit Oklahoma City. But tragedy is a poor guide for legislation. Still, legislation will be passed that allows the government to deport suspected aliens without giving them information oil the case against them. The President will have the right to brand certain groups as "terrorists." Supporters of those gr6ups, as well as citizens of nations the President deems sponsors of terrorism, cart be deported or prevented from entering the country.

The critical issue is not just that the early accusations of foreign involvement have been proven wrong. Rather, one should wonder what would have happened if foreign terrorists had been involved. Would the need for protection from terrorists threats then have interfered with a continued commitment to preserve liberty and justice? Would it then have proven true that, as J. Edgar Hoover once remarked, justice is merely incidental to law and order?

Or will it happen now?

The U.S. Senate has surely opened the way. The ironic but real conclusion may well be that precisely because of the domestic nature of the Oklahoma City bombing, calls for boosting international law enforcement and the policing of foreigners, possibly beyond the boundaries set by human rights, have never fared, better. Criminologists are allowed to stand by, back out, or cave in. Perhaps they can do better.
A longer version of this paper is available online.

See other writings on (counter-)terrorism.