Two Neo-Nazi skinhead believers in “white power” who planned to assassinate candidate Barack Obama in a shooting spree that would also target African American school children have been arrested in Tennessee. The two men, 20 and 18, are charged with illegal possession of a sawed-off shotgun, plans to rob a firearms dealer and making threats against a presidential candidate. The arrest, two weeks before the election, is a concrete sign that the terrifying “A-word” of U.S. politics has entered the tumultuous race to the White House. [New York Times, October 28, 2008]
In 1995 General Colin Powell acted on his wife’s fears for his safety, and decided not to run for President. When Barack Obama entered the Democratic Presidential primary, in May 2007 the secret service provided him protection, earlier than any other candidate in history. As the McCain/Palin campaign sputters and stalls, and its attack language hovers around the ugly edge of provocation, these responses and this arrest should set off alarm bells. We Americans are dealing with more than the usual “red meat” of an intense election.
Almost from the outset of the campaign, and in a variety of forms Republican voices have offered a steady anti-Muslim drumbeat, with racial overtones. Campaign surrogates continue to cast Obama as “the other,” “not like us”; he ”pals around with terrorists.” Translation: he’s a sinister, unpatriotic, foreign friend of 9/11-types. Audience responses have been unsettling.
At one McCain town meeting, a lady was moved to say, “I can’t trust Obama. . . . He’s an Arab." Taking her microphone, McCain replied, “No, he’s a good family man, citizen, that I just have disagreements with on fundamental issues. . . .” (McCain’s contrast between good people and people in or from the Middle East is “straight talk” prejudice.) Colin Powell suggested a better response: "The really right answer is, ‘What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?’ The answer is no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be president?"
Unfortunately, right answers have not kept pace with violent threats: Some people in McCain/Palin audiences have greeted references to Barack Obama with racial slurs, epithets and shouts of “kill him!” Although the FBI is investigating a few outbursts, new ones mark Republican campaign rallies and haven’t been forcefully repudiated.
Matters escalated in early October after Fox News’ Sean Hannity introduced a researcher named Andy Martin who characterized Obama’s work as a Chicago community organizer as “training for a radical overthrow of the government.” Martin’s background, not mentioned by Hannity, was revealed a week later by the New York Times: he is distinguished by having filed so many frivolous law suits he was featured in a TV documentary. The Times reported further that although he graduated from law school, Martin was denied admission to the Illinois bar because he has a “moderately severe character defect manifested by a well-documented. . . paranoid flavor and grandiose character.” [New York Times, October 13, 2008] One judge barred Martin from bringing his antics to the federal court system. Martin also has an odd political career: He ran for Congress three times, for President twice, and in the 2008 campaign circulated “proof” to Jewish and other voters that Obama is “a secret Muslim.”
Jews and “race” have occupied Martin’s mind. In his Connecticut race for Congress, his campaign committee listed one of his goals as ”to exterminate Jew power.” In 1983, court papers document his referring to a Judge as a “crooked, slimy Jew who has a history of lying and thieving common to a member of his race.” Another legal document for that year has Martin stating, “I am able to understand how the Holocaust took place, and with every passing day feel less and less sorry that it did.” When confronted with his words by the Times, Martin charged that malicious judges had invented and inserted the offending quotations. Why would Sean Hannity and Fox News provide a nationwide platform to this self-appointed Obama expert?
Between Martin’s TV appearance and the third debate, Sarah Palin increasingly painted Obama as being “not a man who sees America like you and I see America” and as “a pal of terrorists.” Palin’s proof: Bill Ayers, a 1960s Weatherman, who had been tried but not convicted of acts of terror — when Obama was eight-years-old and lived in Hawaii. For decades, Ayers has served on community boards with Republicans and Democrats (including two with Obama), has been recognized by the Mayor of Chicago for his civic contributions and designated Chicago’s “Citizen of the Year.” Today, he is a distinguished professor at the University of Illinois/Chicago, whose advocacy of educational reforms has won him important supporters and colleagues of every political stripe.
Next, Republican speakers invoked Obama’s middle name as a way of alerting crowds to the presumed danger he represents. On October 8th, Lehigh County Republican Party chair Bill Platt, for example, publicly scoffed at the idea of “Barack Hussein Obama” becoming “President of the United States.” At a Florida rally, a uniformed policeman roused a crowd with his sinister invocation of the name “Barack Hu-u-s-sein Obama.” The official Web site of the Sacramento County Republican Party compared the senator to Osama bin Laden and featured a poster calling on people to "Waterboard Barack Obama." The Republican National Committee had them take it down.
Republican rallies, as documented by news videos and You Tube postings, began to resemble unruly scenes, with yells of “traitor,” “liar,” “kill him” and other threats. Neither Palin nor any party official rebuked these words. (“Unleashed, Palin Makes a Pit Bull Look Tame,” Washington Post, October 7, 2008.)
On October 8th, Senator Biden on the “Today Show,” called Palin’s rhetoric “over the top" saying: “Once her speeches elicited yells of ‘traitor,’ she should have stopped in mid-sentence and turned and condemned that.” No Republican response.
On October 10th, civil rights movement veteran and Congressman John Lewis, wrote: "I am deeply disturbed by the negative tone of the McCain-Palin campaign. What I am seeing today reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse." Severely beaten by state troopers during his participation in the iconic 1965 march across the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, Lewis recalled how then Alabama Governor George Wallace’s words had created "the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights . . . . Sen. McCain and Governor Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all."
Responding to Lewis’s concerns on an NBC Washington affiliate, McCain claimed he had repudiated harsh partisan invective “on several occasions,” without citing any instance. Then he cast himself as the victim of allegedly insulting tee shirts worn by Obama supporters. He called John Lewis “an American hero who I admire,” and then characterized his words as “the worst, most unacceptable statement a couple days ago that I have ever heard. He accused me and Sarah Palin of being involved in segregation, George Wallace and even made reference to a church bombing where children were killed. Senator Obama has not repudiated that statement. Senator Obama should do so immediately. It’s the most outrageous thing that I have heard since [I've been] in politics . . . it is disgraceful."
The following Tuesday during a Palin rally in Scranton, Pennsylvania, after Republican Congressional candidate Chris Hackett sharply attacked Obama, someone yelled “kill him.” Again the threat went unchallenged from the platform.
Perhaps a clue why such comments are uncontested by candidates who claim to be putting "country first," lies in Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention. She quoted “a writer” who extolled the virtues of small town citizens. That writer was Westbrook Pegler, for decades an anti-black, anti-Semitic nationally syndicated columnist with ten million readers. Pegler had a penchant for “white patriots” and a bitter hatred of people who opposed white supremacy. [Frank Rich, New York Times, October 11, 2008] He was noted for his lament that Giuseppe Zangara, the deranged gunman who shot at President-elect Franklin Roosevelt in Miami in 1932 had missed and killed the Mayor of Chicago instead. Pegler found it "regrettable that Giuseppe Zangara hit the wrong man . . . . ” In 1965, two years after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Pegler said of his brother Robert Kennedy that he hoped "some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies." [Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2008]
Westbrook Pegler died in 1969, the year after two of his choice targets, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. But now his specter haunts the 2008 campaign.
The past — never quite dead and buried — warns us that political threats of violence are serious matters. Gunmen have taken the lives of four U.S. presidents: Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan narrowly escaped assassination attempts. Candidate Robert Kennedy was slain, and candidate George Wallace was severely wounded.
You don’t have to be in the Secret Service to know that, with a black candidate in the field, any open threat of assassination requires a stronger response than silence or mild reprimands. After the Civil War, dozens of African American office-holders in the South, along with many of their white political allies, were slain, beaten or driven from office by Ku Klux Klan nightriders. A dozen years after Emancipation massive intimidation and murder had nullified civil rights laws enacted by Congress and eviscerated three Constitutional Amendments designed to protect the lives and liberties of former slaves. In the middle of the 20th century, murders of white and African American civil rights workers in the South aimed to block those marching toward justice and equality. If we factor in lynching, violent opposition to African Americans’ pursuit of either public office or other citizenship rights has left a body count in the thousands. Talk about acts of terrorism against Americans!
In the wake of the 9/ll tragedy, the Bush administration chose a catastrophically violent response, one that played into the hands of terrorist recruiters even as it abandoned the pursuit of bin Laden. The Bush Doctrine justified invasions and violence as first responses, fired wildy at several targets, and created fear at home to justify inficting massive civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Labeling a Presidential candidate a traitor who "pals around" with terrorists fits in with policies that prefer war, especially the "preemptive" kind, to negotiation and compromise, and rely on torture and extraordinary rendition. In domestic debate this approach normalizes over the top political language that ranges from incivility to incitement.
A political campaign that includes or encourages calls to bigotry and murder invites the ugly face of war into the democratic process. This kind of barbaric language has to be vehemently opposed during the campaign and beyond. Two young armed skinheads who believe that murder will help “the existence of our people and the future of white children” are in federal custody. But who else is out there prepared to act on such distorted notions?
WILLIAM LOREN KATZ is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. His new, revised edition of The Black West [Harlem Moon/Random House, 2005] also includes information on the Philippine occupation, and can now be found in bookstores. He can be reached through his website: www.williamlkatz.com