The Terror That Failed: Public Opinion in the Aftermath of the Bombing in Oklahoma City

Article excerpt

Introduction

The deadliest incident of domestic terrorism in U.S. history occurred April 19, 1995, when a bomb exploded at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City's central business district. This unnatural disaster has had special significance for public administrators for several reasons. It occurred in the country's twenty-ninth most populous city, professionally managed since 1927, and the state capital. The federal building was owned by the General Services Administration, housed 14 federal agencies, and was named for a federal judge. Public servants were deliberately targeted: 60 percent of the 168 fatalities and 40 percent of the 647 injured were federal or state government employees in Oklahoma City.

By standard gauges such as funding, programmatic activity, public opinion, and scholarly and media attention, terrorism in the United States is a serious political issue and managerial challenge. Having increased more than 40 percent since FY 1998, funding for counterterrorism activities, accounts for approximately $10 billion of the proposed FY 2000 budget (Davis 1998; Loeb 1999). Government efforts involve 40 federal agencies (GAO 1997, 4) and innumerable state and local agencies. The issue stands high on the agendas of governmental agencies, the media, and the public, as the tables and references herein will show. That the results of these standard measures of significance are markedly disproportionate to the actual low incidence of terrorist acts on U.S. soil (Table 1) speaks to the distinctive meaning of terrorism--its psychological dimension--and the official and public emotional response. Because the bombing of the federal building has resonated in the public service community, has increased public awareness of terrorism in the abstract, and has been identified by national leaders and the public as a significant event, the author explores whether and how the tragic incident affected public perceptions of terrorism as a political issue and people's assessments of their individual risk and personal vulnerability to domestic terrorism.(1)

Table 1 Terrorist Incidents in the United States

Year        1990   1991   1992   1993   1994   1995   1996   1997

Incidents    2      4      3      4      0      1      3      2

Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation for 1997, 2, 23.

Public Perceptions of Risk and Vulnerability

The Oklahoma City bombing allegedly heightened the public's awareness of and insecurity about domestic terrorism. The underlying presumption was that if terrorism could strike in America's heartland, then no place and no one could be safe. For example, one CBS anchor opened a program by announcing that the "bombing showed Americans just how vulnerable they are to domestic terrorism" (CBS News Transcripts 1995), and a Heritage Foundation memorandum stated that the incident "underscored the vulnerability of an open society to terrorism" (Phillips 1995). At the signing of the 1996 anti-terrorism bill, Attorney General Janet Reno said that the anniversary of the incident reminds us "that even the very young and the most innocent are not immune" (White House 1996). CNN reported that law enforcement experts warned that "what happened in Oklahoma City ... could happen again in other cities" (Clark 1995), and a correspondent concluded that the "last casualty of the Oklahoma City bombing may be the loss of our sense of security, now scarred forever" (Camp 1996). Fully 84 percent of those polled agreed the event would be considered important a decade later (Princeton 1995).

Apparently tacitly concurring that the bombing strongly affected public perceptions of terrorism, many public leaders offered reassurances. President Clinton (1995b) vowed on the very day of the blast that the country would not tolerate terrorism and he "will not allow the people of this country to be intimidated by evil cowards." A year later, Vice President Al Gore affirmed that "[u]nder this president and in this country, terror will not triumph" (White House 1996). …