The Paranoid Impulse


Washington. -- The Tennessee marble on the side of the Morgan bank building in lower Manhattan still bears, defiantly, scars inflicted on September 16, 1920, when a horse-drawn wagon loaded with sash weights exploded amid a lunchtime crowd. Among those blown to the pavement was Joseph P. Kennedy. He was among the fortunate. The blast, which shattered windows over a half-mile radius, killed 30 and injured more than 100.

There were no arrests, or explanations. Someone probably had taken too seriously some socialist critique of capitalism, but the incident fed J.P. Morgan Jr.'s many phobias, which included: "The Jew is always a Jew first and an American second, and the Roman Catholic, I fear, too often a papist first and an American second."

Today, as the nation sifts and sorts the many jagged and tangled fragments of emotions and ideas in the aftermath of Oklahoma City, it should remember that this was not America's baptism of lunacy. Bleeding Oklahoma City is a few hundred miles down the road from Pottawatomie in what once was bleeding Kansas, scene of a memorable massacre. John Brown's body lies a-moldering in the grave, but his spirit -- massacres in the name of God -- goes marching on in the paranoia of a few.

A very few, on society's far fringes. Which is progress. After Brown killed the mayor of Harpers Ferry and seized the arsenal, he was sentenced to be hanged. Yet America's pre-eminent intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said of him, "That new saint, than whom nothing purer or more brave was ever led by love of men into conflict and death . . . will make the gallows glorious like the cross." Morgan wrote the words above about Jews and Catholics to A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard, of which institution Morgan was an overseer. It is unthinkable that such sentiments could be expressed in such circles today.

Today when the fevered minds of marginal men produce an outrage like the Oklahoma City bombing, some people rush to explain the outrage as an effect of this or that prominent feature of the social environment. They talk as though it is a simple task to trace a straight line from some social prompting, through the labyrinth of an individual's dementia, to that individual's action.

Now, to be sure, it is wise to recognize that ideas, and hence the words that bear them, have consequences. Those who trade in political ideas should occasionally brood as William Butler Yeats did when he wrote this about the civil war in Ireland:

Did that play of mine send out

Certain men the English shot?

Did words of mine put too great strain

On that woman's reeling brain?

Could my spoken words have checked

That whereby a house lay wrecked?

However, an attempt to locate in society's political discourse the cause of a lunatic's action is apt to become a temptation to extract partisan advantage from spilled blood. Today there are those who are flirting with this contemptible accusation: If the Oklahoma City atrocity was perpetrated by individuals gripped by pathological hatred of government, then this somehow implicates and discredits the current questioning of the duties and capacities of government.

But if the questioners are to be indicted, the indictment must be broad indeed. It must encompass not only a large majority of Americans and their elected representatives, but also the central tradition of American political thought -- political skepticism, the pedigree of which runs back to the Founders.

The modern pedigree of the fanatics' idea that America's government is a murderous conspiracy against liberty and decency -- a moneymaking idea for Oliver Stone, director of the movie "JFK" -- runs back to the 1960s. Those were years John Brown could have enjoyed, years when the New York Review of Books printed on its cover directions for making a Molotov cocktail, and a student died when some precursors of the Oklahoma City fanatics practiced the politics of symbolism by bombing a building at the University of Wisconsin.

Today, when some talk-radio paranoiacs spew forth the idea that the AIDS virus was invented by Jewish doctors for genocide against blacks, it is well to remember that the paranoid impulse was present in the first armed action by Americans against the new federal government. During the Whiskey Rebellion 200 years ago a preacher declared:

"The present day is unfolding a design the most extensive, flagitious and diabolical, that human art and malice have ever invented. . . . If accomplished, the earth can be nothing better than a sink of impurities."

It is reassuring to remember that paranoiacs have always been with us, but have never defined us.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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