I realize the incendiary nature of this post but frankly, the candidacy of Barak Obama puts us in unchartered waters with regards to several issues. And one of those issues has to be the realization that black leaders in America have been targets of assassins in the past.
Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King are only the most prominent names on a long list of shameful murders – usually at the hands of extremist whites – that have stained this country’s honor and darkened the pages of our history. From those who sought to teach the recently freed slaves how to read who were hunted down and killed like animals, to martyred pioneers in the struggle for voting rights in the south at the turn of the century, to the devastating murders of civil rights workers in the 1950’s and 60’s, blacks who have stepped forward and offered to serve the cause of freedom in America have been at risk of being slain. And while few deny the steady and resolute progress toward achieving the goal of a truly color blind society, the fact is that there are dozens of groups like the Klan, Skinheads, Nazis, and Aryan Nation whose hate could erupt in a spasm of violence that would have tragic consequences.
Even though there have been serious African American candidates for President before, neither Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton appealed to many Americans outside of the far left of the Democratic party and black Americans in general. In effect, both men were what used to be called “Favorite Son” candidates with limited appeal beyond their relatively small constituencies.
By any measure, Senator Obama’s candidacy is different. He is attracting big time money and picking up big time endorsements while a growing, enthusiastic grass roots movement is propelling him forward. His appeal spans race, region, and party. He has as good a shot of winning the Presidency as any of the front runners in either party.
Does it matter that his race makes him more of a target for assassination? I believe it does indeed but perhaps not in any way that would cost him votes. I think what the increased likelihood of danger for Obama does is change the external dynamic of the campaign for both the Senator’s Democratic challengers and, if it comes to it, the man he will face in the general election.
Not that the extremists need an excuse to murder anybody. But experts who study political assassinations have noted that most of these murders take place in an enabling atmosphere where the assassin actually believes he will be considered a hero for carrying out his deed. The Warren Commission, driven by politics to go easy on Dallas, nevertheless made it clear that the atmosphere of hate in the city found a receptive vessel in Oswald.
Oswald’s Marxism was a mile wide and an inch deep. It is doubtful he understood anything about Communism except that it set him apart from the crowd and gave his attention starved ego a boost. Oswald’s pretense of murdering Kennedy for the world communist revolution masked his real reason. As William Manchester so brutally pointed out in his masterful Death of a President, Oswald “shot the President of the United States in the back to get attention.”
Indeed, the FBI’s profiles of assassins include this singular fact; the assassin seeks a public venue for his murder to validate his need for recognition. It is not hard to imagine the kind of hate directed toward Kennedy in the south as a result of his civil rights proposals. One need only look at the hate directed toward President Bush to get an inkling of the kind of unbalanced, inarticulate rage that was felt toward Kennedy. And driving that rage in Dallas was the publisher of the Dallas Morning News, Ted Dealy.
Dealy printed a poster of Kennedy on the day before the assassination, with the caption “Wanted for Treason.” His vitriolic editorials practically invited someone to take a shot at the President. And for some reason, Dallas seemed to be the capitol city of the unhinged in America at that time. Birchers, Kluxers, radical anti-communists, race baiters, all made Dallas a place that worried many of Kennedy’s close supporters, many of whom strongly urged him not to make the trip at all.
How much of that atmosphere rubbed off on Oswald? According to Ruth Paine, who put up Oswald’s wife Marina following several brutal beatings by her husband, Lee read the News everyday. And Oswald could hardly have been unaware of the Birchers since he took at shot at General Edwin Walker, a notorious extremist just months prior to his killing the President.
But it wasn’t just the Kennedy assassination where we see this hatred explode into violence. Many have pointed to the atmosphere of hate in Memphis when Martin Luther King came to support the garbage workers in their strike for a decent wage and better working conditions. And in 1968, the recent Arab-Israeli conflict and the outrage in the Palestinian community that was felt as a consequence of American support for Israel apparently contributed to the rage of Sirhan Sirhan and his desire to strike back at America by killing Robert Kennedy.
Even John Hinckley, Ronald Reagan’s would be assassin, may have been affected by the unhinged nature of much of the criticism being directed against the President for his budget and tax proposals and most especially for his stated desire to confront the Soviet Union. I distinctly remember commenting to friends at the time that at this rate, Reagan wouldn’t survive; that some nut with a gun would get the idea they were doing the world a favor and kill the President.
And the hate and spite directed at President Clinton resulted in two serious assassination attempts. Francisco Duran fired nearly 30 rounds through the White House gate in 1994. And while he tried to mount an insanity defense, he also claimed that he was inspired by conservative radio talk show hosts who had talked about “cleansing” the government and “armed revolution.” Even if Duran is lying about what actually motivated him, no serious observer could fail to note that for much of Clinton’s presidency, there was an undercurrent of hysteria that animated his extremist critics.
So how does this affect the Presidential campaign? First and foremost, it places a responsibility on candidates, their staffs, and their supporters to be circumspect in their criticisms of Obama. You can lay into a candidate without inviting the public to hate them. One can even personalize their criticism without it degenerating into the kind of mindless hate that is so often directed at Bush. And this challenge will be monitored by a more sensitive press who will probably come down harder and quicker on transgressors.
It also behooves those of us who write for political blogs to be cognizant of the danger. Obama is one of the most liberal candidates ever to seek the Presidency. I doubt whether many conservatives agree with much of anything he espouses. But will it really kill us if we keep our criticisms focused on the issues of the campaign – including personal issues like his lack of experience and an emerging portrait of a mushy headed idealist? I think not.
I’m not telling anyone what to write or to limit themselves in any way except to understand the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy and the very real danger that the same kind of treatment the right gave Clinton could prove tragic. As I said, it isn’t just the odd, angst ridden social deviant armed with an automatic weapon that would feel enabled by such an atmosphere. There are very serious men fully capable of making serious plans who might not need an enabling atmosphere to kill but who might actually be encouraged by it.
In his book In God’s Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest, writer-blogger Dave Neiwert paints a startling and disturbing portrait of some of these extremists. Anyone who believes that these people are just a bunch of red necks hiding in the woods needs to be disabused of that notion entirely. And the Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Project has detailed files on dozens of hate groups, some of them heavily armed and made up of former members of the United States military.
They have the means and the motive (by their lights) to bring unspeakable tragedy once again to this country. It will be up to the dedicated and motivated professionals at the Secret Service to deny them the opportunity.
And it will be up to us to deny them any semblance of an idea that their violent action would be greeted by anything except outraged contempt.