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Bill Clinton Sees Shades of OK City in 'Net-Fueled Rhetoric

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, April 16 2010

Next week, you might know, is the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing that killed nearly two hundred people, and so there's a burst of new attention on home-grown anti-government extremism. There's also the inevitable tendency to connect the mindset of bomber Timothy McVeigh to some of the Tea Party rhetoric we're now hearing that doubts the legitimacy of our unique sort of federal system of government, at least one with a strong central authority in Washington. Naturally, some of this activity has been playing out online. There's been a spike of interested caputured in Google searches, for example, for the 17th Amendment -- the one that establishes for direct election of senators by the people, rather than through state legislators.

The contours of this debate aren't anything new, of course. The battle over the whether the United States is a federation of states or a union of individual people, for example, has been with us since the Constitutional Convention. (For what it's worth, Richard Beeman's Plain, Honest Men is a great read on the passionate debates the men gathered in Philadelphia had about how the federal system should work.) But Bill Clinton, reflecting upon the Oklahoma City bombing, is worried that the Internet is fueling dangerous extremism:

“Because of the Internet, there is this vast echo chamber and our advocacy reaches into corners that never would have been possible before," said Mr. Clinton, who said political messages are now able to reach those who are both "serious and seriously disturbed."

Clinton goes on to specifically condemn Representative Michelle Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican, for referring to the Democrat-lead Congress and the Obama administration as making up a "gangster government." Said Clinton, "They are not gangsters... They were elected. They are not doing anything they were not elected to do."

The idea that the Internet is potentially a dangerous meeting spot for crazies is perhaps, a tempting one. And it's probably even healthy to keep the idea in mind. But back up for a second and notice that it isn't just any ol' violent rhetoric that's Clinton or Bachmann are dealing with here -- it's a doubting of the nature of the institutions that frame our society. Is the Senate a good idea? Does the health care bill take away too much agency from the states? Those are core questions about the American experiment. It doesn't seem all that surprising that given how disruptive a technology the Internet it is, that people are using it to question the walls around them. But that they're playing out online rather than in dark warrens seems to create an opportunity for those opposed to, you know, violence to pull those conversations back to safer ground.