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Clinton draws parallels between 'upheaval' of 1995, today

By John Helton, CNN Senior Political Producer
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Bill Clinton: Don't fuel the 'unhinged'
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Former president analyzes mood of country now and leading up to Oklahoma City bombing
  • Anti-government radicals can communicate faster now, he says
  • We don't want to go down violent road again, he says
  • Clinton joins Wolf Blitzer on "The Situation Room" today at 5 p.m. ET on CNN
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(CNN) -- Former President Clinton said he sees parallels in the mood of the country now and on April 19, 1995, when the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people while he was in the White House.

"There's the same kind of economic and social upheaval now," he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer in an interview to air Friday on "The Situation Room."

"Then, you had the rise of extremist voices on talk radio. Here, you have a billion Internet sites," Clinton said.

And although the hard-core, anti-government radicals are still a minority, "they can communicate with each other much faster and much better than they did before. The main thing that bothered us since the time of Oklahoma City was that already, there was enough use of the Internet that if you knew how to find a Web site -- and not everybody even had a computer back then, but if you knew how to find it, you could learn, for example, how to make a bomb."

"Now, everybody has got a computer; Web sites are easily accessible. And you can be highly selective and spend all of your time with people that are, you know, kind of out there with you," he continued.

Clinton said the Oklahoma City bombing -- then the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history -- was the "last in a series of very high-profile violent encounters" during the 1990s between anti-government activists and authorities.

He said the country is better protected to prevent such an attack now. But when asked whether the anti-government mood now is more intense than in the 1990s, Clinton said, "Now, there are all of these groups, you know, saying things like the current political debate is just a prelude to civil war, all of that kind of stuff."

In an interview with the New York Times on Friday, Clinton warned of the affect that angry political rhetoric might have on antigovernment radicals like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh; he pointed to Rep. Michele Bachmann calling the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress "the gangster government" at a tax day Tea Party rally on Thursday.

"They are not gangsters," Clinton told the newspaper. "They were elected. They are not doing anything they were not elected to do."

Clinton said that demonizing the government with incendiary language can have effects beyond just rallying a crowd.

"There can be real consequences when what you say animates people who do things you would never do," Clinton told the newspaper, pointing out that McVeigh and his conspirators "were profoundly alienated, disconnected people who bought into this militant antigovernment line."

But Clinton said he didn't want to draw too tight of an analogy between then and now. He added that it's not his intent to stifle criticism of government.

"I'm not interested in gagging anybody. I actually love this political debate," Clinton said.

"Most of the Tea Party people, though, are explicitly political. You've got to give that now," he said. "Forget about whether we disagree with them or not. It's really important to be able to criticize your government and criticize elected officials. That doesn't bother me.

"Most of them have been well within bounds," Clinton said. "And they're harsh but limited criticism; in other words, they're not advocating violence or encouraging other people to do it.

"But I just think that we have to be careful," the former president added. "We've been down this road on more than one occasion before. We don't want to go down it again."

 
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