Oklahoma City

Fifteen years have passed since Timothy McVeigh's bomb ripped the heart out of my hometown.  Fifteen years since people I knew had their lives cut short by violence planned and executed here in our land by one of our neighbors.  This is one pain that does not diminish over time.

I had represented Oklahoma City in Congress for 16 years.  On the day Timothy McVeigh's bomb exploded outside a courthouse named for a federal judge I had known, I was far from my home, teaching at Harvard.  I was about to enter a classroom for a 10 o'clock class when I learned of what had happened.  The news was numbing.  Not only was this my home, these people were my friends; my daughter still lived there, my grandchildren lived there.  What was happening?  Who had done this?  Who was safe?

As those who know me can attest, I am inordinately proud of my city.  I don't know what "heartland" means (for some of the people I had come to know, this was merely a place to be looked down upon from one's airplane window or from one's smug condescension) but there is a wonderful spirit in this still-new place and I love it.  Because my own life has been so intertwined with politics, I see the political milieu as one way to describe this place.  The district I represented has been represented in Congress in the past 34 years by a Jew, a Mormon, a woman (this in a state with few Jews and few Mormons). An adjoining district was represented first by an African-American and now by a member of the Chicksaw Indian tribe.  In an overwhelmingly Protestant state, Catholics are routinely elected to major statewide offices.  Tribalism extends only to actual Native American tribes: in Oklahoma, nobody knows or cares about your religion, your ethnicity, and unless you're a candidate for public office, your party affiliation.  What binds us is a common humanity, unroiled by artificial division.

In the aftermath of the bombing, Oklahomans came together both to mourn and to rebuild.  To mourn together and to rebuild together as a common people.

On Friday, the Center for American Progress and the Democratic Leadership Council hosted a remembrance discussion in Washington in which I participated.  The featured guest was Bill Clinton who, as president, represented the entire nation's solidarity with us after the bombing.  Clinton's words 15 years ago have been remembered and praised by the state's top leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike.  It is clear to me that true civilization occurs most readily when partisanship recedes.

The remaining questions go beyond Oklahoma City, Bill Clinton, the pulling together of Oklahoma's diverse citizenry, or the occasional Timothy McVeighs who seem to surface in every large society.  What remains to us is to figure out how to minimize the misdirected angers and confusions that lead to such horrible results.  President Clinton, in his remarks on Friday, recognized the unsettling -- unhinging -- effects of change and disorientation and the consequent search for understanding, often leading to a grasping at simple and often outrageous explanations for the shifting sands beneath one's feet.  Decades ago, Eric Hoffer, in "The True Believer," understood this frightening phenomenon and the seeking out of transcendent causes to which one may become zealously attached.

In my view, there are two other factors at play and both pose frightening prospects.  The first is "certitude," the unwavering certainty that one's understandings, opinions, conclusions, proposals are correct beyond the possibility of debate and that fealty to those views, and antagonism toward those which are contradictory, is an unshakable obligation.  The second is the virulent form of partisanship that has eroded public discourse and led to the sight of men and women in high places demonizing holders of contrary opinion.  To "demonize" -- to paint those whose views differ from your own as a "demon" -- evil, plotting, hostile to decency, incapable of rational thought, bent on destruction of essential values -- is to plant the seeds from which the bombings bloom.

We celebrate, as we should, July 4 (Independence Day) and September 17 (Constitution Day).  We do not celebrate -- but must never forget -- April 19 and September 11.  July 4 and September 17 commemorate our past; but how we remember April 19 and September 11, what we learn and how we change, may well determine our future.

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Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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