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After the terror


The nation, in reaction to the mad atrocity in Oklahoma City, is more unified than it has been in memory. Generation, race, region, gender, religion and ethnicity are one in sorrow for the decent Americans lost and maimed, and for the inhibitions likely to flow from security measures yet to be taken. And the nation is disciplined in repudiation of the self-appointed zeal that grants to itself the right to murder and torture randomly selected strangers.

That unity began while public assumptions linked the horror with radical extremists from the Middle East, akin to those held responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York two years earlier. And the unity remained after assumptions switched the spotlight to the fringes of the domestic paranoid right.

There are people who play at being soldier, who invent non-existent conspiracies and who ascribe to the Constitution a right to bear arms against the government that is not in that document. Most such people are utterly innocent of this crime. But from that culture the current suspects sprang.

President Clinton has shown sure leadership from the moment the bomb went off Wednesday. Just the evening before, two major television networks preferred rerun sitcoms to his press conference, and innumerable pundits who didn't hear it presumed to find fault with his performance.

How quickly that changed. The same networks were anxious to get from him, from Wednesday on, confirmation that competent people were in charge and that justice and rescue were being done. He provided it.

Mr. Clinton with a sure touch -- utterly lacking in the Waco incident two years earlier -- warned against pre-judging or blaming groups of people. He drew a clear line between the right to think and the crime of harming people.

He demolished the notion of blaming the government for the murders committed by David Koresh and his Branch Davidian followers on that occasion. He punctured the presumption that blowing up innocent people can ever be righteous resistance to perceived government misdeeds. He distinguished the undenied right to bear arms from undoubted crimes.

Americans grieve for the people of Oklahoma City who lost family and friends, and for survivors who will feel pain all their lives. Americans unite against terrorists -- whoever they may be and from wherever they may come -- who appoint themselves to inflict suffering on others.

And in this unity, Americans are quite capable of distinguishing those who did it from those who did not.

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