The fear factor

The fear factor

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 06/19/2008

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Hoax, cheap stunt, crank, crackpot, racist and sick were the apt terms tossed at so-called artist Yazmany Arboleda for his grotesquely named near-exhibit, “The Assassination of Hillary Clinton & The Assassination of Barack Obama” at a midtown New York storefront.

Near only because Secret Service agents and NYPD officials quickly moved in and yanked down and carted away the assorted painted nooses and the garish pictures of Obama from the building. The exhibit may have been a crackpot stunt, but it did again point to the real fear that legions quietly whisper and openly voice concern about — the danger of physical violence to Obama. This is not a paranoid or false fear.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and the 45th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. The three icons represented the best and brightest in America’s leaders and stirred the hope and longing of millions for a full-throttle fight against poverty and racial injustice.

These are exactly the same qualities that Obama symbolizes to millions. But in some ways, the luster on Obama’s star at this stage of his career outshines that of King and the Kennedys. Unlike the Kennedys, he’s an African-American. Unlike King, he’s the first African-American presidential candidate who could win. And unlike King and the Kennedys, he has drawn a global throng of admirers who see in him the embodiment of change and a fresh direction for US policy on the war and the easing of global tensions. He’s also seen as a potential president who can put a diverse, humane face on American foreign policy.

But these are also the very same qualities that stir the deep fury, hatred and resentment among loose-screw malcontents and hate-mongers. The thick list of fringe and hate groups, as well as the hordes of unbalanced violence-prone individuals running loose in America, can fill a telephone book. The long history of hate violence in America is more than enough to raise the antenna over the danger of violence against prominent political figures.

The first troubling hint of this with Obama came virtually the moment he announced, in February 2007, that he was a presidential candidate. The personal death threats quickly began flooding in to his campaign. Obama had the dubious distinction of being the earliest presidential contender to be assigned Secret Service protection on the campaign trail. That didn’t satisfy some. Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson fired off a letter to Secret Service officials practically demanding that the Secret Service provide all the resources and personnel it could to insure Obama and the other presidential candidates safety. Thompson didn’t say exactly what prompted him to fret over whether the Secret Service was doing all it could to protect the candidates, but almost certainly Thompson heard the whispers and nervous questions from his constituents about Obama’s safety.

As the crowds grew bigger at Obama rallies and his public visibility grew even greater, the Secret Service increased the number of agents assigned to guard him. The ramp-up in protection was a good move. At the same time, Obama campaign aides and volunteers continued to report occasional racial taunts and jibes when they passed out literature and pitched Obama in some areas. This further increased the jitters that Obama was at risk. As the showdown with John McCain heats up in the coming months, the flood of crank, crackpot and screwball threats that promise murder and mayhem toward Obama almost certainly will continue to pour in. This just as certainly will prompt the Secret Service to tighten security and take even more elaborate measures to ensure his safety. The Secret Service, of course, must spare no effort to make sure he’s fully protected.

That won’t totally ease the fears about his safety. But it will show that the government is doing everything humanly possible to protect him. That’s especially important given the deep doubt and even paranoid suspicion that some blacks have that shadowy government agencies were knee-deep complicit in the assassination of King, and the fervent belief of millions of other Americans that the CIA or other shadowy government agencies were deeply complicit in the killing, if not outright murder of JFK.

Obama was 1 year old when JFK was killed. He was 6 when King and Bobby Kennedy were slain. But he well knows the horrid violent history of America and the very real danger that violence poses to a charismatic presidential candidate who energizes and excites millions; a candidate who promise political change, and implicitly racial change. He can easily laugh off a phony, self-serving stunt such as an assassination exhibit, but he can’t laugh off the danger posed to presidents and those who aspire to be presidents.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is “The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House.”

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