There was a time not long past when April 19 was a national occasion of solemn remembrance. It was the day we remembered how the flames of homegrown anti-government hatred, fanned by unrestrained anti-government rhetoric, burst into a ball of fire that claimed the lives of 19 innocent children, 168 victims in all, in what would be known for six years as "the greatest terrorist act committed on American soil."
April 19, 1995. That was the day a bloodied baby, Baylee Amon, one of the youngest victims of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, lay dying in a firefighter's arms, a scene captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo circulated around the world.
I think of Baylee every April 19. I think of her, and can't help but lay the blame not just at the feet of Timothy McVeigh, the disaffected Gulf War veteran who set off the bomb.
I remember the politicians and the opinion leaders who stoked the anti-government fires with dehumanizing rhetoric, throwing around phrases like "jack-booted government thugs" and "faceless bureaucrats." Then 168 dead and 680 injured were pulled from the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, and we realized that the government wasn't a bunch of faceless thugs. Instead, we saw our neighbors, our friends from church, old friends from college — and their children — in the rubble. E pluribus unum.
In the years immediately following, April 19 was observed with solemnity nationwide. Each year, we paused at 9:01 a.m. for 168 seconds of silence. And on April 19, 2000, our national leaders came together to dedicate a national memorial at the bombing site.
But then came 2001. McVeigh was executed on June 11; we know what happened three months later. The attack on the World Trade Center — with its foreign terrorists and death toll in the thousands — eclipsed what had happened in Oklahoma City, and April 19 gradually lost its significance.
Which I imagine is why we find ourselves where we are today — on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing — quite possibly on the verge of more tragedy. Politicians and opinion leaders, instead of insisting on civil discourse, are again employing angry anti-government rhetoric while the disaffected and disenfranchised look for a target. Lock and load.
Can we please do better? Can we please take our differences to the ballot box, and then honor the democratic process, even when we don't like the outcome? Can we debate the role and nature of government without categorically dehumanizing government employees? Can we remember that government is made up of our friends, our neighbors, the people we see at church and the grocery store?
Please, let us do this, in remembrance of Baylee.