Date: Mon, 15 Apr 1996 12:25:24 -0700 Subject: [Atheist] AANEWS for April 15, 1996 nn nn A
Date: Mon, 15 Apr 1996 12:25:24 -0700
Subject: [Atheist] AANEWS for April 15, 1996
Reply-To: email@example.com, AMERICAN.ATHEISTS@listserv.direct.net
nnnnnnnnnn AANEWS nnnnnnnnnn
#12 uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu 4/15/96
OKLAHOMA BOMBING ANNIVERSARY -- A 'PRAYER TOO FAR' ?
In four days, it will be the first anniversary of the April 19 bombing of
the Alfred E. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Despite one of the
most intensive investigations in the history of law enforcement (surpassed
only perhaps by the hunt for the infamous "Unabomber"), only two suspects
have been charged in the explosion which claimed the lives of 168 people.
Even so, the Oklahoma City tragedy has become a metaphor for some diverse
ideologies, all using religion as an important element in developing their
own peculiar interpretation of what is happening in the United States.
Early reports about the explosion promptly raised the spectre of "foreign
terrorists", specifically Palestinian or Arab agents linked to
Middle-Eastern groups like Hamas, or even the group responsible for the World
Trade Center explosion in New York. No sooner had network art-departments
hastilly constructed their video logos (with slogans such as "Terror in the
Heartland"), though, than the manhunt shifted from swarthy, Arab types to
fair-haired all American kids. The prospect that "one of our own" may have
done the deed became a disquieting prospect.
The weeks and months that followed became a setting for political extremes
and posturings on all sides of the issue. President Clinton, riding high
with his most favorable ratings to date in the opinion polls, began
lambasting "the voices of hate" -- a one-size-fits-all formula for everyone
who didn't happen to like Democrats. Clinton the 60's anti-war protester
quickly seized the opportunity to become a law-and-order man, urging the
prompt passage of an "anti-terrorist omnibus bill". Everyone from the FBI
to the CIA jumped in, claiming that they were losing a "technological war" to
militias, hackers, cyber-jocks, and potentially anyone with a computer. The
NRA and GOP didn't like the anti-gun aspects of Clinton's plan, of course,
but even some Democratic stalwarts and civil liberties folks suggested that
Clinton WAS trading parts of the Bill of Rights for votes in his enthusiasm
to fight "terrorism."
The "other side" had some interesting theories of their own as well. A
kind of "fusion paranoia" incorporating conspiratorial motifs from both the
left and right end of the political spectrum had emerged in parts of the
American consciousness, and it appeared in explanations of the Oklahoma City
bombing. Some insisted that it wasn't Rush Limbaugh giving the word to a
mindless army of militia fanatics which led to the blast;instead, the
"shadow government" (Jews, Masons, Insiders, Illuminati) had decided to blow
up one of its own buildings in order to enact even tougher anti-gun
lesiglation, and turn the United States into a police state. In the war of
imagination-fueled vitriol, both Clinton and his far right critics were
already reaching for hyperbole. Former FBI agent Ted Gunderson made it back
into the news with his imaginative claim that a four pound aerial "pineapple
bomb" developed by an Iran Contra figure had devastated the Murragh building.
This seemed to be as lacking in good evidence, though, as Gunderson's other
statements he had uttered on talk shows during the late 1980's and early
90's, that bands of satanic cultists were kidnapping up to 50,000 Americans
annually for use in sacrificial rites. Geraldo, are you listening?
If the prosecution is correct, it was two two men -- Timothy McVeigh and
Terry Nichols -- who basically masterminded the Oklahomo City bombing.
Attempts to link them to a wider conspiracy have thus far failed; indeed,
claims that McVeigh represents "only the tip of an iceberg", some amorphous
conspiracy of militias, right-wing survivalists and gun-show enthusiasts is
reminiscent of those people who still toil over enlarged photographs of the
Grassy Knoll in search of the assasins who murdered JFK. There are informal
links, coincidence and happenstance associations; but not the concrete and
verifiable evidence. Even so, that has not stopped President Clinton from
painting an apocalyptic image of contemporary America in stark, "us" versus
"them" terms, often draped in the most sanctimonious and religious of
Within days of the blast, a seemingly endless round of memorial masses,
prayer gatherings, moments of silence and other religion-infused rituals
began. All received extensive coverage (some of it live) from the news
media. Hardly a phrase was uttered by any public officials which was not
punctuated by references to god, the dead souls of "the children" (nineteen
were killed when the blast hit the building's day care center), or the need
to acknowledge clergy and other religious figures as vital to the "healing
process" and "recovery." Extensive publicity was given to the activities of
religious groups, including the many churches which make Oklahomo City was
one of the most "churched" regions of the country. Did that fact do any good
in averting the tragedy?
From Washington, President Clinton, Vice President Gore, their wives,
Senators, Copngressmen, other public officials and their families shuttled to
Oklahoma City to participate in the ceaseless round of services. Victim's
families were shown on the evening news clutching bibles, rosaries and
prayer cards. The area surrounding the devastated building became a
sprawling if not gaudy religious shrine of burning candles, crucifixes,
pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The religious "response to hatred"
became as important a theme in media coverage as did the hunt for the actual
perpetrators. "I know she's in heaven smiling down on us now," a bereaved
mother told news cameras ,referring to her child who was a bombing victim.
It was pretty clear that from the viewpoint of Clinton and the rest of the
national leadership, "coming together" in solidarity for the Oklahoma City
survivors involved strict criteria when it came to being one of "us versus
them." A Day of Prayer was declared, and the President told Americans to
join with him in praying for victims and survivors. Constant references to
the Bible Belt also suggested that the "heartland" of America was
unabashedly Christian, and mostly white. Jews and "loyal" muslims could join
in the praying, of course, but not the Atheists, religious skeptics or other
Doubting Thomas types. Clinton has risen admirably to the political
possibilities of the occasion, cashing in his earlier image as a moral
philanderer and anti-war college kid to being a god-fearing, law and order
partisan of American Gothic wholesomeness.
It's a year later, and still -- we're dramatically told -- "the people of
Oklahoma City" have not entirely reached "closure," despite the prayers,
church services, and even the demolition of the old Federal Building.
Another round of masses, prayer gatherings, memorial services and other
religious events is planned; federal workers, we are informed, are already
displaying "anxiety" over what USA TODAY branded fears that "anti-government
activists may plan some other strike." Those not anxious already may well
have the jitters as the media builds up to a fever pitch in anticipation of
this Friday's anniversary.
It is hard to maintain perspective of something like the Oklahoma City
bombing in the midst of so much shrill rhetoric, dire predictions, and
religious proselytizing. It is even tougher when as an Atheist, one is
excluded by virtue of a widely-practiced National Civic Religion orchestrated
by the President of the United States.
In an insert to the issue of American Atheist Newsletter which followed
the Oklahoma tragedy, this writer noted that Atheists and secularists were,
in effect, being driven out of the American public square by the religious
overtones and dimensions which had been linked to this event. Where could an
Atheist send money, food or other aid to victims? What could Atheists do to
show that we, too, were sensitive and empathetic to the loss and suffering of
the survivors, the families of victims and the rest of the community? We
certainly couldn't pray as Mr. Clinton instructed us to do.
Of the 168 victims, and the hundreds more who knew them as relatives,
friends and neighbors, there were surely Atheists, religious skeptics, or
others who did not incorporate into their lives the beliefs and practices of
religion. What about them? How did these people deal with the grief and
subsequent events? What is THEIR story? We may never know.
It is interesting to note one final thing about the various protagonists
in the Oklahoma City drama. This is a story that cuts through a wide and
diverse portion of the current American cultural landscape, a tale linking
outraged public officials, grieving families, nebulous "anti-government"
movements and the media. Everyone has an axe to grind on this cutting stone,
and the rhetoric often involves religion. For those who seek a metaphysical
linkage between events such as Waco, Ruby Ride and Oklahoma City, there are
apocalpytic religious scenarios to ponder. Not every gun-show patron, or
even every militia member subscribes to Christian Identity or some
fundamentalist brand of religious xenophobia, but the influence of these
ideas circulating at that end of the political spectrum is difficult to
ignore. After all, in the American "heartland" where bibles outnumber guns,
interpreting everything from the prosaic and mundane to extraordinary events
in the light of religious certainty DOES tend to focus the human imagination.
If religious fervor was a factor behind those who bombed the Murragh
building, it surely plays a role in the responses of those who survived it.
And while select, isolated groups awaiting the days of Final Judgment in
their mountain retreats and compounds inevitably captivate our attention,
their eschatology and template for life -- a reliance on supernatural
scripture -- isn't that much different from those who are admonishing us to
not listen to talk-radio and instead pray in ceaseless rounds of masses,
church services and memorials. Along with the invasion of FBI agents and
other law enforcement personnel who poured into Oklahoma City, there was a
similar influx of clergy who began their counselling, orchestrating of
services, and the "big day" of the nationally-televised prayer fest for the
victims. Did it really do any good? And did it matter that they too prayed
to a god who, in the midst of such tragedy, was not asked why he (or she, or
it) did not avert the mishap in the first place?
AANEWS is distributed by American Atheists, a nationwide movement founded by
Madalyn Murray O'Hair for the advancement of Atheism, and the total, absolute
separation of government and religion. For more information on American
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Edited and written by Conrad Goeringer, The LISTMASTER.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank