Friday, August 14, 2009

The Guns of August

The Guns of August

By Michael Deibert

In November 1787, writing to William Smith from Paris, where I live, Thomas Jefferson, future president of the United States and then U.S. Minister to France, penned the following lines:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.

This month, outside a town hall meeting held by President Barack Obama in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to discuss his efforts to reform America’s health care system, a man named William Kostric appeared with a loaded handgun strapped to his thigh and a sign reading “It’s time to water the tree of liberty.”

At a town hall meeting hosted by Senator Arlen Specter, a longtime Republican turned Democrat, which took place in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, about 40 minutes from the working-class, largely conservative enclave of Lancaster County where I grew up, a disheveled man shrieked at Specter, who has represented Pennsylvania in the senate since 1981, that "one day God's going to stand before you, and he's going to judge you and the rest of your damned cronies.”

In the midst of the debate of overhauling our national health care system, these two eruptions were not isolated incidents. Attendees brought firearms to events held by members of Congress Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and Steve Cohen of Tennessee, both Democrats. Death threats have been sent to four Democratic congressmen: Brad Miller of North Carolina, Dennis Moore of Kansas, Brian Baird of Washington and David Scott of Georgia. Baird’s office received a fax this month in which Obama was depicted as The Joker from the Batman film “The Dark Knight,” with a Communist hammer-and-sickle painted on his forehead and the words “Death to all Marxists! Foreign and domestic!” scrawled beneath. A similar fax was sent to the office of Scott, an African-American, with the added element of Scott, an Africa-American, being denounced as “a nigger” A large swastika was spray-painted across the sign for Scott’s office.

Firing the furnace of such sentiments have been such ideologues for the right as television host Glenn Beck, who appallingly play-acted the murder of House speaker Nancy Pelosi on his nightly show on Fox News, and the radio host Rush Limbaugh with his opining that President Obama is “trying to destroy the private sector as it exists...Let’s face it, President Obama’s black, and he’s got a chip on his shoulder...He’s using the power of the presidency to remake the country”

This is what the debate over health care appears to have been reduced to in the country of my birth. In a nation where some 46 million Americans currently lack any health insurance whatsoever, and millions more have only the most limited access to any kind of coverage, a reasoned, sober discussion on the best way to overhaul our fabulously expensive and fabulously inefficient system comes down to threats of political assassination and vows of divine retribution.

The words of Jefferson, who was writing at the time in defense of the French Revolution and the overthrow of a monarchy, are now used to intimate violence against the man who occupies the office that Jefferson himself once held, a man whom, in one of those exquisite bits of historical justice, is of mixed-race ancestry much like the children that the freedom-extolling Jefferson fathered with a slave, Sally Hemings, as Jefferson’s compunctions about slavery did not extend to not participating in the institution itself.

Today, however, the Republican Party of another storied U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln, which has been in power for 20 of the last 28 years, has been supplanted by Barack Hussein Obama, son of an ethnic Luo Kenyan father and a white American mother from Kansas, a man who seems very earnest about trying to re-tool much that is brutal, wasteful and stupid about American political culture. The party does not seem to be taking to opposition well.

The need to re-haul our health care system could not seem more dire. Knowing, as I do, people in the United States who have gone bankrupt attempting to cover their health care costs, as well as many more who put off going to the doctor, receiving treatment or buying medicine because they simply cannot afford the prohibitive cost, I am also myself a statistic. Despite working 50-60 hours per week as a freelance journalist, I have not had health or dental insurance since early 2006.

The current system, dominated by insurance and pharmaceutical companies and defined by a health-care scheme absurdly tied to employment status, is being portrayed by opponents of change as a triumph of American know-how worth preserving. But compared to the health care system of France, for example, the country where I currently live and from where Jefferson wrote his famous letter, its performance comes up woefully short. Though the French system has consistently been rated among the best in the world (while the U.S. system recently ranked 37th, according to the World Health Organization), the 11 percent of GDP that France spends on it is far below the 17 percent of GDP spent in the U.S., a cost that comes without the vast benefits, safeguards and universal coverage that the French system offers.

However, none of these costs and benefits are currently being debated, nor are the political leaders of the opposition to the new health care reform bill urging any sort of moderation in their discourse.

Former vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor Sarah Palin took to the social networking site Facebook earlier this month to denounce the “death panels” she charged the bill would create where “bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care,”, a completely false allusion to a provision that would allow Medicare to reimburse doctors providing voluntary counseling regarding end-of-life issues. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa echoed Palin where he told a recent rally that “we should not have a government program that determines if you're going to pull the plug on grandma.” A memo by a volunteer affiliated with FreedomWorks, a conservative organization chaired by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, recently advised protesters on how to "disrupt" and "rattle" town hall meetings. Obama and the advocates of health care reform in the United States are routinely denounced as “socialists,” compared to Nazis and Adolf Hitler and the very legitimacy of Obama’s birth in the United States (which took place in Hawaii in 1961) is questioned.

Seeing the party of Lincoln reduced to a clutch of Talibanesque religious fundamentalists, science-denying climate change skeptics and openly xenophobic racists and bigots might be simply depressing if the implications were not so deadly serious.

A new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center concludes that “after virtually disappearing from public view a decade ago, the anti-government militia movement is surging across the country – fueled by fears of a black president, the changing demographics of the country and fringe conspiracy theories increasingly spread by mainstream figures.” The report echoed in its particulars an April intelligence assessment by the Department of Homeland Security.

In May of this year, George Tiller, a Kansas physician who performed abortions and who had been pilloried by the right and by television host Bill O'Reilly in particular, was shot and killed while attending a church service, allegedly by an antiabortion extremist, Scott Roeder. In June, Stephen Tyrone, an African-American security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, was shot and killed, allegedly by James Wenneker von Brunn, a Holocaust denier and white supremacist with a long history of anti-government militancy.

And, in perhaps a telling echo of the past, the words of Thomas Jefferson that William Kostric alluded to with his sign and gun outside of the Obama appearance in New Hampshire this month where the same ones that Timothy McVeigh, convicted and executed for carrying out the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, wore emblazoned on his t-shirt on the day of his arrest.

Having reported in the past on tumultuous political environments in countries such as Guatemala, Haiti and India, I have watched as pseudo-populist demagogues have often proved highly successful at using intemperate rhetoric to whip up groups genuinely or perceiving themselves to be disenfranchised to act against “the other.” I believe that as my country continues forward this August there is a real danger that a union will occur between the violent and shrill political rhetoric currently being spouted and actual physical violence against those who are being so demonized among anti-government elements of the right. I increasingly fear that I have seen this script played out before, always with the same disastrous results.

Much as we hold the intellectual authors and instigators of political violence in foreign countries such as Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia culpable for the actions of their underlings even though they themselves may have never carried a weapon into battle, the opponents of health care reform would do well to pause for a breath and look at the political climate they are creating and what its likely outcome will be. And they should remember the oft-forgotten words with which Thomas Jefferson commenced to conclude that famous 1797 missive from Paris:

"I know that there are combustible materials there, and that they wait the torch only."

Michael Deibert is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti. His blog can be read at


Mira Kamdar said...

A really outstanding piece of writing Michael. It all looks like utter insanity from here in France, doesn't it? Of course, there is the rise of extreme right-wing violence in Germany story out there too... But somehow the current U.S. situation seems much scarier - and I believe is.

John A. Carroll said...

I agree.

Excellent writing, Michael, with important historical perspective.

Michael Costeines, Ph.D. said...

Obama: "a man who seems very earnest about trying to re-tool much that is brutal, wasteful and stupid about American political culture."

Hi Michael
It seems you paint Obama as a progressive champion of the people whose valiant efforts have naturally incited the most reactive elements of the Right. If only I could believe this. I think there is a bigger story going on here, and it's important that more liberals grasp this.

I have found the writings of columnist Chris Hedges to be quite helpful here. He notes,

"If we remain passive as we undergo the largest transference of wealth upward in American history, our open society will die. The working class is being plunged into desperation that will soon rival the misery endured by the working class in China and India. And the Democratic Party, including Obama, is a willing accomplice."

Michael Deibert said...

Thanks for your comments, Mira and John.

Michael, I am well aware of President Obama's shortcomings on issues dear to my hear, believe me. But, though, I am not super-familiar with Chris Hedges' writing, I find anyone who rallies round the deluded narcissism of Ralph Nader (the man who helped hand the presidency to George W. Bush) to possess judgment that is a bit suspect, to say the least.

When a journalist begins their reportage with a rant about "the American empire," it is generally a safe bet that they have already resigned themselves to preaching to the choir, and that the reader is assumed to necessarily share the views of the journalist in question, a journalist who seems not very interested in dialogue and discussion. A bit like the frothing mobs at the town hall meetings, in fact.

I know that the buzzwords such as those Hedges uses in the article you link to are popular among internet activists and the like, but I think they do precious little in terms concretely improving the lot of working-class and working-poor Americans.

That's my two cents, anyway.

Sutton said...

Yes, along similar lines, TPM made this observation a few days back:

"The right -- the modern American right -- has a very troubled history with political violence. The ideological pattern is clear going back at least thirty years and arguably far longer. A simple review of the 1990s, particularly 1993, 1994, culminating in many respects in the tragic 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal building in April 1995 tells the tale. Mix in the militias, the thankfully inept attempt on President Clinton's life a few months before Oklahoma City (see Francisco Duran) and it's all really not a pretty picture."

Anonymous said...

Very good story Michael. Interestingly, Frank Rich in his NY Times column echoed parts of your analysis (and your title) a week later:

Michael Deibert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Deibert said...

Thanks, Tomas. I must confess, though, when Rich's article was brought to my attention earlier this week, "echoed" is a bit more neutral a word than that which came to mind. But maybe I am getting curmudgeonly in my old age.