On April 19, 1995, the federal building in Oklahoma City was blown up. Two days later the nation’s newspapers teemed with the first reactions of their pundits. Few didn't point a finger. And those fingers pointed in one direction.
Syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer wrote in the Tribune: “As of this writing, we can say that while the bombing might possibly have been the handiwork of other groups (right-wing vigilantes, the Branch Davidians), the indisputable fact is that it has every single earmark of the Islamic car-bombers of the Middle East—from the blowing up of the American Embassy in Beirut to the destruction of the Marine Corps barracks there.”
Mike Royko wrote in the Tribune, “I find it impossible to believe that free-lancers are solely responsible for the bombings of airliners, military barracks, and, now, civilian-filled buildings in the United States. It's gone on too long and has happened too often and too effectively.”
A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times refused to let uncertainty keep him from the point he was determined to make. "Police do not know for certain whether the bombing is foreign terrorism or domestic,” he wrote. “Either way, the fact remains that whatever we are doing to destroy Mideast terrorism, the chief terrorist threat against Americans, has not been working.”
And Sandy Grady of the Philadelphia Daily News refused to let the same uncertainty deny him the language he longed to employ: "What kind of political hatred is worth the death of a child? What Jihad or rage at the Great Satan would make someone load a van with the equivalent of 1,000 pounds of dynamite, exquisitely timed to massacre children on a sunny morning."
(Here’s a link to the column I wrote then that collected this commentary and much more.)
These commentaries composed a visceral moment soon frozen in time. For the front pages of the same newspapers carried late-breaking details about the perpetrators and even sketches of John Does I and II. The idea that we’d been attacked by radical Islamists was dropped as quickly as it spread.
Sixteen years ago, six years before 9/11, we knew who the enemy was. We’d already been attacked by this enemy and lost lives to this enemy, and when we had to blame someone for mass murder we blamed it first. The smug point of my column had been to fault the press for jumping to this conclusion; the point of many of the pundits I was faulting had been to urge the public to pay attention to what one of them, Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post, called “a clear and present campaign of terror against America.”
But Hoagland’s idea of terror was Beirut, “whose once attractive boulevards have been mangled by car bombs.” Beirut, I observed, “was repeatedly invoked as this sort of attack's normal home. It was the frame of reference that allowed many of journalism's best minds to think about the unthinkable.”
No one thought hard enough. Neither the car bombs of Beirut nor the destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City stirred the public or punditry to imagine the unthinkable yet to come. If Osama bin Laden wanted to deal America a fatal blow, he obviously didn’t come close. If, at any price, he wanted to finally get the attention of the Great Satan — well, that he did.