1995 bombing highlighted a disturbing rise in anti-government fervor

Today, as I write this column, it is April 19, exactly one year after the United States suffered from the worst act of domestic terrorism in its history—the bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City that took 168 lives.

It is likely that we will never forget that day. Like the Challenger explosion or President Kennedy’s assassination, it will be a point in time burned into the memories of most Americans. We will ask each other, “Where were you when you first heard the news?”

According to prosecutors, the people behind that tragic bombing were motivated by their mistrust—and all consuming hatred—for the federal government.

Being skeptical about government is as American as cherry pie. We only need to go back to our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, to read a justification for the violent overthrow of a tyrannical government.

Most of us would agree that 1996 does not equal 1776. But even before the Oklahoma City bombing, there were signs that the temperature of contemporary America was boiling over. Polls showed that three-quarters of all Americans did not trust their government. Voting rates continued to stagnate. Here at the UW, the Graduate School of Public Affairs found that more and more of its majors avoided a specialty in government, opting for a non-profit specialty instead.

The trend was so disturbing that the school decided to launch a two-year Trust in Government Project—inviting politicians, business leaders, journalists and media analysts to public forums and holding special student and faculty seminars. That project inspired this issue’s cover article by Associate Editor Jon Marmor. Jon interviewed UW faculty and alumni active in local, state and federal politics about the growing cynicism and got a multitude of responses—everything from “It’s only a passing phase” to “It’s a healthy reaction to government abuse.”

One magazine article and a two-year outreach project are not going to restore America’s faith in its government. But as the shock waves from the Oklahoma City bombing still echo across the landscape, we can hope that reasonable discussion will turn down the fever and put us on the path toward a cure.