Author on Oklahoma City reflects on impact of attacks

In September, Oxford University Press will publish The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory, by Edward Linenthal, a professor of religion and American culture at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. The volume is based on extensive interviews with family members of those killed in the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, along with survivors and rescuers. Linenthal also had unfettered access to a massive archive of documents, letters and objects relating to the bombing, including the personal effects left by mourners at the site.

Linenthal, 53, earned his Ph.D. at the University of California at Santa Barbara and has taught at Wisconsin-Oshkosh since 1979. He is the author of several books about how Americans memorialize history, including Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields; Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America's Holocaust Museum; and History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past. Following Tuesday's apparent terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C., Linenthal reflected on how the attacks compare to the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and the impact they will have on our nation.

"The bombing in Oklahoma City, as incredibly powerful as it was, did not--except for brief periods when federal buildings were closed--disrupt the daily life of the nation. I don't want to be apocalyptic about this, but with commercial airplanes being hijacked, this attack could have a really profound impact on the way Americans live and the way we think about the delicate balance between freedom and security. I think it is terra nova. This kind of incredible, coordinated attack on major symbols of American life appropriates the language of warfare. That was true in Oklahoma City, but this is even more so.

The scale of this is just horrifically breathtaking. I don't even know what words we can use to describe it.

I think about public deaths versus anonymous deaths. We have accepted as an ordinary part of our lives almost as many deaths as there were in Vietnam on the nation's highways every year, and we just accept that as the cost of doing business. Then there are very public deaths that seem to reveal larger issues. As in Oklahoma City, today's deaths are very public deaths. On the other hand, it gets harder to make them personal when you have such large numbers. You can personalize 168 deaths, as in Oklahoma City, but if you have 25,000, it gets more difficult. You had millions in the Holocaust, and at the Holocaust museum, they try to personalize it through individual faces. But it's hard. There were other, very public deaths in our history, such as those at Waco, but they have been relatively anonymous. There were distancing mechanisms--people thought of them as a zombie-like cult, so for some Americans, they didn't count.

I think of how an incredibly grieved community grew up after Oklahoma City. There's a solace in being part of a large grieved community. In this case, it will be incredibly angry grieving, the kind that trumps race and gender and politics. But the fact that it crosses boundaries doesn't necessarily make it any better. Obviously it's a very justifiable anger. Who could not get angry looking at this? I have had a visceral reaction, wanting to really hurt the people who did this to us.

This will effect the fabric of our lives for the worse. There will be a kind of civic impoverishment--we can say all the brave words we want about terrorism not affecting us or running our lives, but I guess I'm wondering if there will be an incredible demand for security, so that people who fly planes will say, "Dammit, I'm willing to give up a, b, c, and d to make sure I'm safe."

Fairly soon we'll be forced to decide what do with that empty space in New York City. Will it be a memorial site, a toxic site, or something restored?"

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