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If the Oklahoma City bombing stands out, that is because it is unique in American history. Eliminationist rhetoric may flower in some of the fringes, but the violence that sometimes follows is usually petty stuff. The most formidable eliminationists have always been in the American center, not on the margins. They aim to preserve or extend the existing social order, not to subvert it. And they have the most guns.
The eradication of the Indians would have been impossible without the support of the federal government. When the second Ku Klux Klan was at its most powerful, in the early 1920s, it controlled the governments of Colorado, Indiana, and Oregon. In the South, lynch mobs and night riders served as a sort of para-state: A man who wore a policeman's badge by day could don a Klansman's hood by night. In the 1960s it was possible for urban cops to engage in extralegal violence in one moment and to call for "law and order" in the next. You could view that as a contradiction. Or you could view it as an especially ugly idea of what law entails.
It's comforting to imagine that violence and paranoia belong only to the far left and right, and that we can protect ourselves from their effects by quarantining the extremists and vigilantly expelling anyone who seems to be bringing their ideas into the mainstream. But the center has its own varieties of violence and paranoia. And it's far more dangerous than anyone on the fringe, even the armed fringe, will ever be.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker (email@example.com) is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).
* The text originally described both Terry and James Nichols as McVeigh's accomplices. In fact, only Terry Nichols was charged with the crime.