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The end of April was supposed to be a time of healing in the United States. It was the 20th anniversary of its withdrawal from Vietnam, a period in which the nation would quietly reflect on its most disastrous foreign adventure in modern times in a new spirit of acceptance. The blood was already shed; it was wrong, but life had moved on.

It did not work out that way. Three days after Easter, the nation's television screens were once again flooded by images of the dead, the dying and the desperate, but they were all too contemporary and, this time, all too close to home. As the giant column of black smoke rose above the wreckage of the Alfred P Murrah federal building, it became painfully clear that the world's greatest superpower may have buried one terrible episode in its history as another was unfolding. Worse, it was in the very heartland of the country, a place that had seemed as far removed from domestic terrorism as it was from the horrors of Saigon.

Until last month, Oklahoma City was not much different from any other small American metropolis, a sprawl of a million people serviced by giant shopping malls, super-stores and fast-food joints, connected to the city centre by freeways. Much of its sense of community is derived from the church - there are 1,500 churches, dominated by the Baptists - and a vague sense that Oklahomans are a special, hardy people who have endured their share of suffering but rarely got much credit for it outside the pages of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's novel about the exodus from the Dust Bowl states during the Depression.

The bombing has profoundly challenged Middle America, which, after decades of living under the anaesthetic of popular culture and consumerism, has been suddenly jolted awake. When Los Angeles was hit by an earthquake of 6.8-magnitude last year, the city briefly rallied before its habitual cynicism prevailed, propelled to the fore by reports of federal aid scams. But Oklahoma City is Middle America. Its response was as wide and sweeping as the surrounding Great Plains.

Advertising billboards, more frequently used for displaying the latest truck, were occupied by messages of support such as god bless oklahoma city and thank you, lord, for our oklahomans. Every lamppost, parking meter, fence and railing seemed to be covered in pink, red and white ribbons. Aid agencies were bombarded with gifts, money, blood and offers of help. At night, four huge, white, electrically lit crosses shone from the sides of the city's tallest skyscraper, the Liberty Bank Building.

For the firefighters digging for bodies in the pile of rubble that used to be the northern faade of the federal building, this generosity of spirit was evident from the outset. "We put out an appeal for torch batteries, and they would arrive within minutes," said Jay Dicken, a firefighter from Washington, DC. "If we went on television and asked for food for our dogs, someone would be there with a truckload within minutes. It was truly incredible."

Every evening, rescuers were applauded as they clomped into the Oyster Bar, a popular downtown watering hole, after yet another day spent playing a deadly game of "pick-up sticks" in search of men, women and children amid the wreckage. As they stood, still dazed, in their Stars and Stripes bandannas and brightly coloured jump suits, patrons jockeyed for the privilege of buying them drinks. And when they retired to their hotels, their beds would be covered with flowers, teddy bears, palm fronds and hand-made cards from schoolchildren.

For the scores of television anchors and talk show hosts (Oprah Winfrey pre-eminent) who descended on Oklahoma City, this outpouring of emotion was proof that ordinary Americans would not be daunted by terrorism; that, no matter how many nutcases lurk around the nation's fringes, mainstream society is holding firm. US News & World Report headlined its story the soul and character of america. "Everyday people", it opined, "have not lost their instinct for performing extraordinary acts of goodness."

But this is not the whole story. Oklahomans are frightened. They want reassurance in the face of an incomprehensible, evil force which has grown - it seems - from within. When, at 9.02am on 26 April - exactly one week after the outrage - people gathered from all over the city and bowed their heads in silent prayer for the 170 or so dead, many held hands. They wanted to share their grief, but also their fear

"It was just such a shock to us," explained Bob "Racetrack" Lawrence, as he drove me around the city in his taxi. One week after the bombing, Racetrack - so named because of his fondness for gambling - was still haunted by the notion that he had dropped off a client near the federal building only moments before its front was demolished by a 5,000lb cocktail of fertiliser and fuel oil contained in a Ryder rental truck. He got drunk. "I hadn't touched a drop for two years," he said, "but I went out and drank a crate of beer."

The need of Oklahomans - indeed, almost all Americans - to see the bombing in almost biblical terms of good and evil was made increasingly clear by the costume drama that unfolded in the bomb's aftermath. As the days passed, the rescuers began to look more and more like American footballers, or comic book gladiators, as they strode around in their uniforms, their helmets decorated with "Oklahoma City 1995" campaign stickers, their clothes festooned with children's badges proclaiming them "heroes". After a while everyone seemed to be wearing a label, even if it was only a coloured ribbon, signalling their allegiance to the forces for good.

At the bombsite itself, the US and Oklahoman state flags fluttered from a giant crane, a symbolic reclamation of violated territory. A large section of the city centre had been sealed off, and the media were corralled into an area several hundred yards away as part of a crisis management plan worthy of Operation Desert Storm. Photographers deemed too intrusive had the film taken from their cameras.

Officials used the neutral phrases you might hear from the lips of a Pentagon staffer. The counselling given to traumatised rescue workers was described as "debriefing", and the business of breaking bad news to the families gathered at the city's First Christian Church called, simply, "notification". The only language that packed any punch was reserved for Timothy McVeigh, the accused bomber held in isolation 30 miles away in a 12ft by 12ft cell at the El Reno federal prison; he was, said FBI leaks, "stony-faced" under interrogation, answering only with his name, rank, and identification number. There was "not a flicker of regret", even when he was shown photographs of dead children.

As the search for the dead wore on, Stetson-wearing cops from the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Department would occasionally ride on horses through the journalists wielding cellular phones, the ranks of satellite lorries, and the small white golf carts used by rescue workers to carry supplies. In a city looking like a war zone, with block after block of shattered windows - at least eight structures nearby had collapsed completely - they clearly felt it was important for the world to know that good guys in white hats still existed.

But real life, of course, has many shades of grey. Much has already been written about the manner in which the Republican Party, and in particular its messianic Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, may have helped create the climate for the rise of the far right wing and the militia groups which may have played a role in the attack. There is plenty of blame to go around. Both the US media and law enforcement agencies, which seemed totally surprised by the bombing, had long known about the McVeighs who stalk the outer limits of the political spectrum. They have failed to take them sufficiently seriously, not least - in the case of law enforcement - because of their own ambivalent relationship with the far right.

There were plenty of warning signs. For several years, anti-federalist elements have been engaged in what amounts to an arms race, according to the Klanwatch Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organisation that monitors hate groups. Its figures show that, in 1993 alone, law enforcement agencies disc-overed six weapons arsenals and 13 caches of explosives which were tied to right-wing extremists with targets believed to include the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles - a major hub of black political power - as well as an African-American museum and housing project in Ohio. Earlier this year, two militia members in Minnesota were convicted of conspiring to use ricin, a biological poison, to kill federal employees. And a state trooper from Missouri was shot in his home after recovering a cache of dynamite and machine guns in a raid last September on a paramilitary group called the Citizens for Christ.

I met one customs agent in a Mexican rest-aurant in Oklahoma who, after spending four days searching in vain though the rubble for his partner, had retreated to drown his sorrows in a local drink called Hot Damn. As he knocked back yet another shot, he tearfully vowed to kill McVeigh if he had the chance, preferably before any trial could be held. He responded to my look of disbelief by revealing a pistol, tucked in his waistband beneath his shirt. "You'd better believe it; I'd kill him all right."

But federal law officers have not always been so decisive. The FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) have been at each other's throats for years, particularly after the ATF bungled the raid on the Branch Davidians at Waco. Moreover, state and local police forces are divided in their loyalties. Their ranks include elected rural sheriffs (especially in the western states) whose sympathies are closer to the militias than they are to the views of the FBI.

Amid these muddled opinions lurks a seam of old-fashioned government incompetence. Take, for example, the ease with which militia groups have disseminated their views over the airwaves. Under US broadcasting laws, short-wave frequencies should only be used for international transmissions. Yet four of the 18 commercial radio stations on short wave have aired militant or "patriot" hate shows. They included Mark Koerkne, the Michigan militiaman whose daily programme, Intelligence Report, included advice on how to use a nylon rope to hang legislators. Worldwide Christian Radio, which transmitted this junk nationally, finally pulled his show off the air at the end of last month, saying that they'd "got to get the gasoline off the fires".

Nor does the US military emerge with any glory. We do not yet know precisely to what extent the army shaped the views or actions of Timothy McVeigh, who joined in 1988 and ended up serving as a sergeant with the First Infantry Division in the Gulf War. We know that he was disappointed that he failed to get into the Special Forces, despite earning a reputation as a quiet, effective soldier. And we also know that he once offered to lend an army friend, John Fulcher, a copy of The Turner Diaries, a bloody account of race war and right-wing rebellion written by the white supremacist, William Pierce. The book - a bible among right-wing fanatics - includes an account of bombing the FBI headquarters in Washington.

Although active involvement with white supremacist organisations is forbidden in the forces, links between soldiers and the far right have long existed. The Pentagon reportedly concedes that it was alarmed to discover that two underground news letters, Resister and Groundhog, were circulating among the ranks, disseminating the same sort of anti-government views espoused by America's militia groups.

The expressions of outrage after the Oklahoma bombing were so impassioned that it was easy for outside observers to believe, mistakenly, that this was not only by far the worst act of domestic terrorism, but also one of the first. In fact, terrorism runs like a dark and unhappy thread through American history, from the lynchings of the Ku Klux Klan to the Black Panthers in the late Sixties and, more recently, the murder of staff at abortion clinics. Nor were they always small-fry. Radical left-wing groups, primarily the Weathermen (a violent spin-off of the college campus civil rights and anti-Vietnam movement), carried out an estimated 250 actual and attempted bombings in the eight months between September 1969 and May 1970.

So will the Oklahoman bombing make any long-term difference? Oklahomans seem to have discovered their capacity to feel, but it's unclear what effect there has been on Americans generally. When, at first, Islamic terrorists were being held responsible, America was briefly united in indignation. But when the spotlight focused on American culprits, familiar differences bubbled to the surface. Critics of the right pointed to the similarity between the militants' paranoid ravings about the threat of a Zionist-controlled "New World Order" and the ideology of mainstream Republicans such as the Christian Coalition's Pat Robertson.

The right-wing has tried to distance itself from the atrocity by depicting McVeigh and his cronies as crackpots, and accusing opponents, particularly President Clinton, of exploiting the tragedy for political purposes. G Gordon Liddy, the former Watergate criminal, advised his listeners to shoot federal agents in the head; but any suggestion that frothing talk- show hosts were spreading hatred and division was tantamount to an assault on the constitutional right to free speech. A heated debate has begun over whether bi-partisan plans in Congress to make it easier for the FBI to investigate suspicious domestic groups will mean a return to the skullduggery of J Edgar Hoover's regime or the Palmer raids in the Twenties, when the FBI and police arrested 6,000 people on the flimsy pretext of Communist conspiracy; while the militias are muttering that the bombing was a government plot to deny them their guns.

But perhaps the most depressing evidence of plus a change comes from Oklahoma's Republican governor, Frank Keating. Keating now seems to be on television all the time. The bombers should not be permitted to walk the earth again, he said; they should be charged with the murder of each victim. Yet, at the same time, his staff have continued putting the finishing touches to legislation allowing Oklahomans to carry concealed weapons. America's militiamen will take heart.