At a recent news conference, a reporter asked House Speaker Newt Gingrich if he felt that the anti-government rhetoric of the new Congress might be partly responsible for encouraging actions like the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Gingrich replied that it was a "grotesque and offensive" question. Is it so far-fetched?
Since the new Congress took power in January, there has been a drumbeat of diatribes against federal employees and the regulations they enforce - particularly federal environmental rules. Federal agencies and their employees are castigated as unneeded, unwanted and a drain on our society. Several bills passed by the House, if enacted, will suspend environmental laws regulating grazing and timber cutting on federal lands. Sonny Bono, R-Calif., says we should "put all the endangered species in one locale and blow them up."
The rhetoric of the anti-regulation extremists in Congress is being matched by anti-government wackos in the "wise-use" and county-supremacy movements. In this emerging climate of fear and senseless violence, federal employees in federal and state resource-management agencies throughout the West have been shot at, sent death threats, harassed and intimidated.
One top Forest Service official recently told me he thought there was a 50 percent chance of a Forest Service employee being murdered this summer in either Idaho or Nevada.
This spring, two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement agents investigating the death of one of the gray wolves recently released into central Idaho attempted to serve a warrant on a local rancher as part of their investigation. Rather than assisting fellow law officers, the sheriff came to the aid of the rancher on whom the warrant was being served, telling the agents to go back to Washington, D.C.
Encouraging and justifying this intimidation, Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, who has sponsored an "endangered salmon bake" fund-raiser, responded by saying she will seek federal legislation requiring U.S. law enforcement agents to seek written permission from county sheriffs before taking action within local jurisdictions.
Now is the time, as President Clinton recently said, to stand up to this kind of "reckless speech" that spreads hate and leaves the impression that violence is acceptable.
Jeff DeBonis is executive director of Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility.