There are two answers to this question. The first is that the bombing is merely the latest episode in the rising tension between the US government and its gun-loving white religious right, for whom America's fast-growing network of state militias provides an ideal forum. The second is that Waco serves as a symbol of a widespread sense of siege which is uniquely American. It stems from the sense in which poor Americans feel themselves to be pitted against the faceless might of American federal bureaucracy.
McVeigh and his associates have been linked with the 12,000 strong Michigan Militia. This huge organisation is just one of as many as 40 active local militias, the first of which was launched about five years ago. Together they claim a total membership of 3 million. Their first platform, the Right to Carry Arms, harps back to the posse tradition and the concept of justice being a local issue. However, the fact that the militias also campaign on a raft of other issues, from taxation to education, sets them against the will and power of federal government. Since the end of the Second World War, the tax protest movement has been a powerful grassroots force throughout white rural America. It has flourished against a backdrop of grinding poverty, increasing debt, escalating interest on bank loans and impossible tax demands. Growing numbers of farmers, suppliers, local businesses and entire rural communities have been through the mill of debt, bankruptcy and repossession. And the same now goes for poor urban communities.
One response has been organised resistance. The refusal to pay federal taxes and the state's heavy-handed attempts to deal with tax protesters have, over the past two decades, resulted in a series of tragic sieges. Thus, as sieges go, Waco is only the most widely reported example. The concept of loyal patriots called on to fight some vast alien force has a long history. It brought one in three American males into the Ku Klux Klan in the mid-Twenties, it fostered the isolationism of the Thirties, it was the language of McCarthyites in the Fifties, it was the voice of Reagan and Star Wars, it overthrew Communism, and it saw Bush through the Gulf war. And now, say the bigots, an alien force - the federal state - is taking over America. Look at what it's doing to honest and hard-working people like Gordon Kahl and the Weaver family.
In 1974 Gordon Kahl, a North Dakota farmer and an anti-Semite and racist, joined the tax protest movement. He served a prison term for his refusal to pay tax. In February 1983 he shot several federal marshals who tried to arrest him, killing two. The 63-year-old went on the run for several months. He was eulogised in country and western songs, the folk music of American ultra-Conservatism. People put banners along the roadside reading "Go, Gordon, Go!" And when he was finally cornered, and he'd killed another marshal, the FBI laid siege to the Arkansas farmhouse and shot him dead. Rod Steiger portrayed him sympathetically in the inevitable movie.
Kahl had been a member of the Sheriff's Posse Comitatus. This right-wing white organisation campaigned, much as the militias are doing in the 1990s, for a return to local laws which were locally enforced. The Posse became a mainstay of the rural anti-tax movement. At the end of 1992 the racist right organised numerous meetings throughout the US to discussaction in response to the case of the Weaver family. They had been involved with one of the US's leading white supremacist groups, Aryan Nations. Early in 1991 Randy Weaver was arrested for minor weapons offences. Released on bail, he went on the run with his family. In August 1992, having discovered the remote cabin hide-out in Northern Idaho, the authorities moved in. In the ensuing gunfight, the family's dog was shot dead, their lodger, Kevin Harris, was wounded and 14-year-old Samuel Weaver was killed. During the 11-day siege that ensued, Randy was badly wounded and his wife, Vicki, was shot dead. The huge FBI-inspired siege involved armoured personnel carriers, three helicopters, a bulldozer, truckloads of military equipment and more than 400 armed men. It only ended when the right-wing presidential candidate and US war hero Bo Gritz went in and brought out the survivors.
The case created a nationwide right-wing network of supporters and sympathisers. It was widely interpreted as illustrating the determination of the federal government to unconstitutionally disarm the people of America.
In particular, the FBI and the ATF officers (from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) are seen as the instruments of this action, which is why the federal building in Oklahoma City, which housed the ATF offices, became a target.
Now, too, we can understand why right-wingers and white supremacists featured prominently in many of the meetings held after the 1993 Waco siege. From these meetings came the surge in membership which turned the citizens' militias into a mass movement. Waco, which seemed new and inexplicable to the rest of the world, had a familiar and bitter resonance for many Americans. And here, at last, for those who craved action, was a case which justified not merely resistance, but actual retaliation against the federal authorities.
Though they'll almost certainly deny all responsibility, the citizens' militias are the prime force provoking individuals to stand up against the power of Washington and its servants. This is why Bo Gritz, the man on whom Sylvester Stallone's Rambo character was based, now runs his own paramilitary compound in northern Idaho, teaching self-defence, and training in guerrilla warfare techniques and in the use of offensive weaponry.
Anyone who surfs the Internet looking for information on the far-right and the militias will know that this kind of violent direct action has long been in the pipeline. Militia extremists have been openly calling for direct paramilitary action against the authorities for months.
In a curious way, racism aside, this bombing has its roots in the birth of white America and the creation of its constitution. People who have inalienable rights to carry weapons and to freedom of self-determination will inevitably clash with the democratic power structure. They will not only identify with siege victims, but will see themselves as actually being under siege by their own government. It's why John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln. It's why Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy. And there's no need for a single conspiracy theory to explain any of it. This stuff's as American as apple pie.
The writer is the author of a history of the Anglo-American extreme right `The Nazi, the Klan and the Aryan Man', due out at end of 1995 from AK Press.Reuse content