Deeply Confused Newsweek Story Compares Republicans to Timothy McVeigh

The weekly gets both the past and the present wrong.


Here's how Nina Burleigh decided to open a Newsweek piece pegged to a recent Republican gathering in Oklahoma City:

Dead. But alive enough for Newsweek.
Weekly World News

Republican presidential candidates gathered last month at the Oklahoma City Cox Conference Center, just a few blocks from the site of what was the Alfred R. Murrah Federal Building. Two decades ago, anti-government militia sympathizer Timothy McVeigh blew it up in what he called an act of war against the U.S. government. It was the worst crime of domestically bred terrorism in American history. McVeigh was executed in 2001, but since then, some of his militia ideals have gone mainstream and even been introduced as laws in many states, including Oklahoma.

Legislators in dozens of states have submitted proposals to nullify or block federal laws—a longtime goal of militias. These have included exempting states from federal gun laws and educational standards, as well as, of course, Obamacare. That doesn't make these anti-federal statutes part of McVeigh's madness, but Republican politicians now often echo conspiracy theories once relegated to troglodyte pamphlets. And several states have passed laws making gold a currency—a step toward returning to the gold standard—even though currency is a federal responsibility.

The article goes on in that vein, citing the Bundy standoff, the fears around the military's upcoming Jade Helm 15 exercise, the movement against Agenda 21, and so on. I assume you all understand why this is a ludicrous way to frame the discussion—an approach roughly comparable to starting a story with "Environmental activists gathered today at Harvard, the same university attended by the Unabomber"—so we can pass quickly over that point. The question of whether McVeigh might have agreed with any of these ideas is entirely separate from the question of whether the ideas have any merit.

So let's look instead at this notion that these ideas were only found among the McVeigh types in 1995 but now have "gone mainstream." In fact, you could hear similar proposals and fears—sometimes the exact same proposals and fears—in GOP circles before McVeigh's mass murder. Indeed, some Democrats reacted to the Oklahoma bombing by trying to link the Republicans to McVeigh; back then the argument went that they had somehow inspired him, not the other way around. This should not come as a surprise to Burleigh. In 1995, she wrote a post–Oklahoma City story about the militias for Time titled "The Movement's Sympathetic Ears on Capitol Hill." I guess she forgot about that.

When she isn't getting the past wrong, Burleigh is being confused about the present. "Since [Obama's] election in 2008," she writes, "the number of anti-government extremist groups tracked by the [Southern Poverty Law Center] has risen to another record high, 874." Well, the SPLC's latest report does list 874 groups in that category. But I don't know where Burleigh is getting this "record high" business. In 2012 the SPLC's count was 1,360, which ordinarily is regarded as more than 874. The SPLC itself acknowledges that the number of groups is shrinking. Here's a chart it put out just a few months ago:

One waves with his left hand, one waves with his right. And one boldly stands alone.
Southern Poverty Law Center

These days, with the number of actual organizations on the decline, the SPLC frets much more about "lone wolves." Evidently Burleigh didn't get the memo. Or else the memo just didn't serve her purpose, which is to build toward a conclusion comparing McVeigh's fertilizer bomb to peaceful politics:

When politicians court a base that believes the federal government is the enemy, it becomes nearly impossible to negotiate. Judging by the gridlocked committee rooms of the Capitol, that metaphorical truck bomb has already detonated in the heart of the American political process.

I'm tempted to respond with a fertilizer-related metaphor of my own.