20 years after Oklahoma City bombing, domestic terror threat remains

  • The scene following the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building on Apr 19, 1995 in Oklahoma City, Okla.
  • An unidentified man stands in the blown-out doorway of a downtown Oklahoma City business on April 19, 1995. 
  • Emergency responders during rescue efforts following the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995.
  • The scene following the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building on Apr 19, 1995 in Oklahoma City, Okla.
  • An unidentified woman is restrained by relatives and police after learning her child was trapped in a day care facility at the Alfred Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, in downtown Oklahoma City. 
  • Emergency responders during rescue efforts following the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995.
  • Medical assistants, Janet Froehlich, left, Wilma Jackson and Kerri Albright run from the Alfred Murrah Federal Building after being told another bomb device had been found on April 19, 1995, in Oklahoma City. 
  • An unidentified woman calls out to friends as she waits for treatment on April 19, 1995, following a car bomb blast at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.
  • The Alfred Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City after a car bomb ripped through it on April 19, 1995. 
  • A view outside from the wreckage of the 4th floor of the Murrah Federal building, on April 19, 1995.
  • Oklahoma City firefighter Chris Field holds bombing victim Baylee Almon. Almon was killed after being was thrown from the the Stars and Stripes Daycare Center on the first floor of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building when the explosion occurred.
  • The axel of the Ryder truck, which was the carrier of the explosive device that blew up the Alfred R. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, as identified by the FBI. 
  • Injured survivors with bandages outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.
  • The downtown streets surrounding the Alfred Murrah Federal Building are swamped by emergency vehicles and personnel on April 20, 1995, after the devastating car bomb blast in Oklahoma City on April 19.
  • Rescue workers climb over debris on April 20, 1995 at the Albert P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
  • Timothy James McVeigh is led out of the Noble County Courthouse by state and federal law enforcement officials on April 21, 1995, in Perry, Okla. after being identified as a suspect in the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal building. 
  • Office lights on the Liberty Bank building in Oklahoma City are illuminated to form a cross near the bomb-damaged Federal Building in the early morning hours of April 21, 1995.

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Editor’s note: This photo essay contains graphic images.

When President Obama addressed the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremist in February, the first terrorist incident he mentioned was the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995 – 20 years ago Sunday.

But, ironically, the discussion at the summit never returned to the brand of far-right domestic extremism that led to that attack. Instead, it focused almost exclusively on jihadist terrorism.

It’s a pattern we’ve seen before. After 168 people were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, Attorney General Janet Reno established a special task force within the Justice Department to assess and share information about domestic terror threats. Then came 9/11, and the threat from homegrown terrorists like Timothy McVeigh was virtually forgotten.

In fact, the DOJ task force didn’t meet again for 13 years. It finally was reinstated by Attorney General Eric Holder last year in the wake of neo-Nazi Frazier Glenn Miller’s deadly attack at Jewish facilities in Kansas – another act of right-wing terror cited by the president at the recent summit.

RELATED: Why it’s time to take domestic terrorism seriously

The renewal of the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee was an extremely important step forward, one for which we applaud Mr. Holder. And the fact that Mr. Holder and other federal officials are scheduled to be in Oklahoma City this weekend further reflects a renewed commitment.

The question now is, will it be enough? And, will this focus be sustained when we inevitably see more horrifying videos of atrocities committed by ISIS?

The threat is clearly still present. The anti-government movement that motivated McVeigh has staged a dramatic resurgence since the election of Obama, a symbol of our country’s growing diversity and a lightning rod for the radical right. Some researchers have concluded that, in the United States, deaths attributed to far-right extremists have exceeded those of jihadists since 9/11.

Yet, strangely, the government seems to be giving certain extreme anti-government elements a pass.

Just last weekend, 100 people gathered at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in the Nevada desert to celebrate the anniversary of what their T-shirts described as “Victory over Oppression.” A year earlier, heavily armed militiamen had forced federal agents to abandon a roundup of Bundy’s cattle that began after the rancher refused to pay more than $1 million he owed in federal grazing fees and fines. Two months later, two extremists who had been at the Bundy ranch shot a pair of Las Vegas police officers in a pizza parlor, declaring the cold-blooded murders to be the “start of the revolution.”

Today, despite what the Bureau of Land Management says is a continuing legal effort, Bundy’s cattle still graze on federal land and he still owes his debt to the government. Worse yet, the militiamen who aimed assault rifles squarely at U.S. agents – an act that constitutes a felony – still have not been arrested. Instead, they are being lauded by their fellow zealots as heroes for standing up to the man one called the “Muslim extremist in the White House.”

The government inaction sends a troubling message – that the rule of law can be suspended by those who attempt to redress their grievances through the sights of a gun.

You would think that leading political figures would condemn such lawlessness and extremist threats. Sadly, that is not always the case. Before Bundy revealed himself as a racist, both Rand Paul and Ted Cruz defended him, blaming the situation on Obama and the federal government.

Now that the presidential campaign is underway, we can expect more heated rhetoric from mainstream corners, the kind that’s become part of a dangerous feedback loop pulling both mainstream political figures and extremists further toward the fringe.

Given the level of extremist activity we’ve seen in recent years, the incendiary nature of our political discourse, and the backlash to the country’s growing diversity, the federal government is likely to have its hands full on the domestic terrorism front for some years to come. It can’t afford to let its guard down again or let lawlessness go unpunished.

J. Richard Cohen is a civil rights lawyer and the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Photo essay by Johnny Simon.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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