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Political parallels between Arizona shooting, Oklahoma City bombing

Carrie Dann writes: Media coverage of the shootings of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and at least 18 others over the last 24 hours has drawn parallels to wrenching examples in recent U.S. history, from the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (the gunning down of a charismatic young politician), to the Virginia Tech campus shooting spree (committed by a disturbed young man who left a clutter of disjoined digital ramblings to justify the unjustifiable).

But perhaps the most accessible comparison made in the aftermath of the gun rampage was to the 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building by a former soldier outraged at the government's handling of two raids on militia groups.

Similarities between the atmospheres surrounding both events were mentioned almost immediately.

On Saturday, Tea Party Nation leader Judson Phillips condemned the attack but warned that liberal voices would immediately blame political forces on the right - as he contends they did in the days after the 1995 attack.

"While we need to take a moment to extend our sympathies to the families of those who died, we cannot allow the hard left to do what it tried to do in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing," Phillips said.

With only a sliver of information yet known about the motivations of Tucson shooter Jared Loughner, any lines drawn between the 22-year old gunman and Oklahoma City mastermind Timothy McVeigh are sketchy at best. But the similarities between the political climate of the mid 1990s and now seem plain.

The Oklahoma City bombing - the 15th anniversary of which was commemorated last spring -- occurred not long after a wave election during which midterm voters rewarded Republicans who advocated for shrinking the role of the federal government. The bombing's chief architect, former soldier McVeigh, railed against government intrusion in American life but was spurred to violence after the federal government's siege of a white supremacist's cabin in northern Idaho and a subsequent fatal raid of the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, TX.

The truck bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building on April 19, 1995, killed 168 people, including 19 children. (McVeigh later told biographers that he considered assassinating elected officials but targeted the building instead because he believed that images of the carnage would make a bigger impact.)

Distrust of government, then and now
"What is it going to take to open the eyes of our elected officials? America is in serious decline!" McVeigh wrote in a 1992 letter to a New York newspaper.

Similar sentiments were not in short supply. Between late 1992 and October 1995, citizens' faith in their government had sunk to an all time low, with no national poll finding over 28 percent of respondents saying that they trusted federal authorities.

The lowest point in that era - a Gallup poll in April 1994 finding only 17 percent of Americans saying they trust the government -- was matched in 2008, and trust remains at historic lows among Republican voters today.

National sentiment about the Democratic president reflected that discontent. President Bill Clinton's approval ratings languished well below 50 percent in early April 1995, and, just one day before the Oklahoma attack, the president struggled to argue that he was still "relevant" after the midterm backlash the previous November.

Post-"shellacking" - Obama's chosen word for the beating Democrats took in the 2010 election - the president's approval ratings remain similarly stuck in the mid-40s.

Clinton's reaction
The political implications of the 1995 violence have obviously been on the minds of leaders of all ideological stripes.

The Tea Party Nation's Phillips alluded in his Saturday statement to accusations that Democrats, reeling from the "Republican Revolution" of 1994, unfairly pinned an attack by an unhinged extremist on bombastic right-wing commentators whose gleeful needling of the administration had focused anti-government sentiment.

In a speech in Minneapolis the week after the bombing, Clinton - without singling out any commentators by name -- denounced the "loud and angry" voices that aim to "keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other."

"They spread hate, they leave the impression that, by their very words, that violence is acceptable," he said.

Radio host Rush Limbaugh responded by accusing Clinton and others of turning a massacre perpetrated by individuals into a means to target an entire political movement.

"Liberals intend to use this tragedy for their own political gain," he said.

In the days after the bombing, Clinton's approval rating jumped five percent, per Gallup's daily tracking number.

At least some voices on the left have noted that the 1995 attack opened the door for then-President Bill Clinton to vilify voices of discontent with the federal government -- a lesson that the White House could draw upon now.

"They need to deftly pin this on the tea partiers," a unnamed veteran Democratic operative told POLITICO, "Just like the Clinton White House deftly pinned the Oklahoma City bombing on the militia and anti-government people."

Near the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing in March of last year, Clinton again ruffled feathers on the right when he cautioned that suspicion of government that has energized some conservatives in recent years could echo the environment that spawned McVeigh.

"There can be real consequences when what you say animates people who do things you would never do," Clinton told the New York Times, adding that the proliferation of political messages on the Internet can activate individuals who are both "serious and seriously disturbed."

Chilling words
In remarks Saturday in the aftermath of the Tucson carnage, Obama shied away from characterizing the shooter or his motivations, and initial indications show that Loughner's anti-government ramblings appear to have been more vague and less targeted than those of the Oklahoma City bomber.

But Americans' understanding of McVeigh's actions and motives are likely to continue informing how the tragedy in Tucson is interpreted, and McVeigh's chilling words will continue to ring in the looming debate over the security of America's elected officials.

"You can't handle the truth," McVeigh told reporters shortly before his 2001 execution. "Because the truth is, I blew up the Murrah Building and isn't it kind of scary that one man could wreak this kind of hell?"