Patriots Day revisited New meaning: Waco raid anniversary resonates with extremists.


ON APRIL 19, 1775, Capt. John Parker told militia of Massachusetts on Lexington Common, "Don't fire unless fired upon. But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here." Someone fired, the British troops killed eight Americans and marched on to Concord, where "the embattled farmers stood. . . who fired the shot heard round the world." The American Revolution was on.

So April 19 became Patriots Day, a public holiday in Massachusetts. In the 1970s, that was changed to the third Monday in the month. April 19 lost its meaning.

Until April 19, 1993, when FBI forces invaded the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. David Koresh and followers started a fire in which more than 80 died. To anti-government extremists, members of the new "militia" (self-appointed armed bands unconnected to the 18th century militia established by legislatures), April 19 took on new meaning.

They saw it marking the U.S. government's war against them. Society made little note of this until April 19 of last year, when a home-made bomb destroyed a federal building in Oklahoma City with the deaths of 168 persons including 19 little children. Shocked Americans wanted this to be the work of foreign terrorists, until evidence focused on home-grown Americans fixated on Waco. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, former soldiers, await trial.

Meanwhile, the FBI is engaged in a new siege, of check-forging anarchists called the Freemen, in Montana. The FBI is exercising greater restraint and no doubt will let today pass uneventfully if the Freemen will. At federal installations, burdensome security measures have been put in place in advance of today. How awful that these are needed to protect loyal Americans from fellow Americans.

President Clinton sought passage of an anti-terrorism law to mark this day. In a role reversal, the struggle in Congress pitted many liberals upholding law and order against conservatives with libertarian objections. Republicans agreed to provide $1 billion for law enforcement and create authority to deport suspected terrorists and bar terrorism-linked groups from raising money. They obtained a drastic curtailment of the right to appeal state court sentences in federal courts. But they refused to grant authority to wiretap suspected terrorists.

This bill reflects anxiety over disintegration of law and order. How sad that this day has come to symbolize that. The nation needs to heal its wounds, reinforce its unity and get back to pausing on April 19 to reflect on the meaning of Patriots Day, 1775, once again.

Pub Date: 4/19/96

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