Opinion » Ted Rall

The Guns Of August

Why won't Obama stand up for himself?

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INDIANAPOLIS--No wonder President Barack Obama won't stand up for us. He won't even defend his personal safety.

Two weeks ago, a right-wing man protested outside the president's health-care meeting in New Hampshire wearing a gun strapped to his leg. Lest we miss his point, he carried a sign that called for the shedding of blood in a new revolution.

A week later, a dozen men appeared outside Obama's appearance in Phoenix brandishing loaded guns. "We will forcefully resist people imposing their will on us through the strength of the majority with a vote," said one, who carried an AR-15 military-style automatic rifle. You read that right--they threatened to use guns to annul the results of the last election.

Cops stood by and watched. The Secret Service did nothing. Strictly speaking, these mooks are allowed to openly carry guns. Which is fine with me. I'm a big fan of the Second Amendment.

It is, however, horrifying to watch goons threaten to assassinate the President of the United States and get away with it. Make no mistake: Guns don't have anything to do with health care. This is a revival of Klanism. A black man is president, and the good ol' boys don't like it. That's what this is about: putting him in his place. Which, if they or someone they inspire has their way, will be six feet under.

God. The smirks those turds wear. Run a Google Image search on "Klansmen" or "lynching." Same ones.

(Doubt this is about race? Bill Clinton's 1993 health-care proposal would have gone farther than Obama's. And he wasn't nearly as popular. Yet he didn't face gun-toting loons at his public appearances.)

John Lott of Fox News says the liberal media is making a big deal out of nothing. "A story about an American with a gun who behaved properly is twisted into something else: a narrative about crazy conservatives who want to threaten the president," he argues, too clever by half. But the right-wing media doesn't even try to explain what place guns have in the health-care debate. These are crazy conservatives who want to threaten the president.

Obamaites' reactions have been breathtakingly blase. "There are laws that govern firearms that are done state or locally," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs replied to a reporter's question about the gunmen stalking his boss. "Those laws don't change when the president comes to your state or locality."

Federal laws do change. Kody Ray Brittingham, who faces five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 under Title 18, Section 871 of the United States Code for threatening Obama, thinks a lot about that fact nowadays. "We take all threats against the president and other high officials of the United States very seriously," said the U.S. attorney prosecuting the case against the 20-year-old soldier, who said he planned to shoot Obama, but never made any move to do so. "The threat itself represents a disruption of the United States government, even if no actual attempt is made to carry out the threat."

That was just six months ago.

Why doesn't the Obama administration want the gunmen taken in for questioning and investigated? He wouldn't even have to file charges. Habeas corpus is gone, eliminated by George W. Bush. Obama's "indefinite detention" continues Bush's policy. These town hall terrorists could be declared enemy combatants and bundled off to Bagram with the stroke of a pen. If ever there were a reason for suspending civil rights, this is it.

Perhaps Obama's team doesn't think gunmen a block or two away from a Secret Service perimeter is a big deal. Maybe the White House has made a political call: better to gamble the life of the president than to risk antagonizing the gun lobby.

They should rethink.

Arthur Schlesinger's classic book A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House describes how an atmosphere of violence can contribute to the death of a president:

In late October 1963, former vice presidential candidate and then U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Adlai Stevenson "had gone to Dallas for a meeting ... The next day handbills with photographs of the president of the United States--full-face and profile--were scattered around Dallas: 'Wanted for Treason, This man is wanted for treasonous activities against the United States,' followed by a scurrilous bill of particulars."

What follows reads like last week's news reports about town hall meetings on health care: "That evening ... While Adlai spoke, there was hooting and heckling, placards and flags were waved, and noisemakers set off. When the police removed one of the agitators from the hall, Stevenson, with customary poise, said, 'For my part, I believe in the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of ignorance.' At the close he walked through a jostling crowd of pickets to his car. A woman screamed at him, and he stopped for a moment to calm her down. The mob closed in on him. Another woman crashed a sign down on his head. A man spat at him."

Schlesinger didn't claim that JFK was killed by a right-wing anti-U.N. protester. Instead, he wrote, "The fundamentalist religious background of many of its inhabitants had instilled a self-righteous absolutism of thought ... [Dallas] was a city of violence and hysteria, and its atmosphere was bound to affect people who were already weak, suggestible, and themselves filled with chaos and hate."

Four weeks later, a weak-minded, eminently suggestible man shot President Kennedy to death.

"Supporters of the Second Amendment ought to find another way to send their message," editorialized The Washington Post. It was a typical, reasoned, pointless stance. But it's too late now to call for common sense and self-control. Now that extreme right racists have made a splash, they're only going to double down.

Obama's approach may be a brave one, but it's not his to take. As a recent headline put it, the presidency belongs to all of us. Like JFK, Obama's assassination would lead to a host of tragic consequences, not least in the area of race relations. And what about the more likely danger, a repeat of the Greensboro massacre, when right-wing thugs shot leftists at a rally?

Existing gun laws weren't written with death threats to public officials in mind. Anyone who shows up armed at a forum where a public official or political candidate is due to appear ought to be detained--and possibly prosecuted.

Ted Rall, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, is author of the books To Afghanistan and Back and Silk Road to Ruin.