Oklahoma's shock, America's revenge

What is astonishing is that the US has been free of such terrorism for so long. The age of innocence is over, says Rupert Cornwell

Bhopal, Lockerbie, Waco. All of them once little-known places, their names now indelibly identified with a horrific, alien event beyond their capacity to understand. To this wretched list must now be added Oklahoma City, a town where, until a couple of days ago, the locals would say, nothing very much ever happened. But what happened there at 9.04 am on 19 April does not merely add another obscure city to the global roll-call of terror. It may well change the very way a country perceives itself, and its place in the world.

Put most bluntly, an American age of innocence ended this week. True, that innocence has always been something of a fiction in a country which needs no reminding of its history of racial tensions, appalling crimes and presidential assassinations, and which boasts a murder rate 15 times that of Britain. But deliberate random terror for political ends has always belonged somewhere else - Belfast, Beirut, Buenos Aires, Algeria - not in a humdrum, windswept cowtown bang in the middle of the continental USA, about as far as it is possible to get from the great forces of world history.

Whoever planted the bomb that tore apart the Alfred P Murrah federal building struck at a reality beyond the fractured myth: the reality of middle America, with its unchanging rhythms, eternal certainties and bedrock optimism. These are now fractured, possibly for ever. That a federal building was chosen indicates that the bombers' target was the US government itself. But not a building in Washington, the seat of that government, or a showcase city such as New York, Los Angeles or Chicago - great metropolises where such outrages, however regrettably, are bound occasionally to occur. Instead, fiendishly, they chose an ordinary city, in the American equivalent of nowhere.

Thus the shock, tangible and all-pervasive, across the entire country. How could something so senseless, so utterly evil, happen in a place like Oklahoma? Nothing in the American experience compares with it: not the massacre of the marines in Beirut in 1983: they were, after all, military personnel on service in a dangerous foreign country. As many civilians died on Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland in December 1988 - but aeroplanes are always vulnerable. But not Oklahoma City, a quiet, unchallenged citadel of the American way of life.

Once the shock subsides, however, America's reaction will be savage. When President Clinton appeared in the White House press room to denounce the deed, there was a hard, cold glint in his eye, quite unknown for this most affable and emollient of presidents. The Attorney General, Janet Reno, was glacial as she announced that the federal government, which has not executed anyone since 1963, would seek the death penalty against those responsible.

And she had little choice. Even before this unprecedented barbarism, crime has been the obsession of the American public. Should it prove that the Oklahoma City attack was carried out by Americans for American purposes, pressure on Congress to pass yet more severe "law and order" measures will only grow. If a Middle Eastern connection emerges, the consequences will be far uglier. Should an Arab government be shown to have been involved, military retaliation is all but certain.

Let it not be forgotten that America is not only the land of baseball and apple pie, where the Oklahoma corn grows as high as an elephant's eye. It is also the country which in 1927 executed the Italian-born anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, which without compunction imprisoned Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, and which was mesmerised by the anti-Communist witch-hunting of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

As the present clamour for capital punishment testifies, the public mood is for vengeance; swift, sure and absolute. If an Arab connection is established, then the lot of Arab-Americans will not be easy, to put it mildly, at a moment when an anti-immigration campaign is growing, from California to Florida. Small wonder many thoughtful Americans are quietly hoping against hope that this car-bombing, for all its foreign hallmarks, is a purely domestic affair, an especially terrible piece of what is nevertheless a recognisable mosaic.

But most early signs suggest otherwise. And what is truly astonishing is not that an outrage of this dimension has happened here, but that it had not happened far earlier. In the Middle East, America has been stockpiling grudges for the best part of half a century. Its very nature as a country of immigrants means that virtually every foreign people or government which feels aggrieved by US behaviour has a potential fifth column inside the country. Thus it seems to have been with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, where the alleged mastermind arrived from abroad, devised the plan, and then departed to leave local sympathisers to carry it out. So it may have been in Oklahoma City. And yet, thanks probably to a mixture of good police work and old-fashioned luck, 1994 saw not a single terrorist incident on US territory.

Inevitably, there will be pressure to tighten border controls. Like Britain and unlike most nations of continental Europe, the US operates tight controls at its frontiers. Within them, however, there is no system of ID cards. Nothing is easier than simply to disappear in a vast country whose essence is mobility. And all the scrutiny of arriving visitors at airports, and the strict patrols along the border with Mexico, obscures the reality of thousands of miles of coastline and an undefended and largely unmonitored frontier with Canada across which criminals can and do slip with impunity.

Security precautions, too, will undoubtedly tighten. The US president is already the most closely guarded leader in the Western world; protection will surely increase at lower rungs on the official ladder. Controls at federal buildings, of those who go in and out and of suspect packages, will also increase. But as Britain, Spain and Israel have long since learnt, the really determined terrorist is impossible to stop. The air is full of talk about super-sophisticated new technology from the FBI and other agencies; but all the electronic wizardry at America's disposal was unable to prevent a man crashing his Cessna light aircraft into the south wall of the White House last September: what if it had been an F-15 loaded with bombs?

True security would require police-state curbs that Americans could not tolerate - less even than Britons, Spaniards and Israelis. Previously, the US has never even addressed that problem. Now, it must. Oklahoma City has proved that everyone is vulnerable, that no public building, movie house or shopping mall in the country is safe. Americans must develop their own "culture of awareness", grafting a consciousness that terrorism exists on to the way they go about their daily business. Such is the loss of innocence, not a retreat into an isolationism that has been proved illusory, but an entry into the real world, where appalling, inexplicable things do happen.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
News
people
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Data Warehouse & Business Intelligence Co-ordinator

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Required skills include SQL querying, SSRS, u...

Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst- Insurance

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst - Insurance ...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent, growing Sales...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?