Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman were charged yesterday with threatening to assassinate Barack Obama. The two men are neo-Nazis and the craziness of their plot, from its fixation with numerology to its campy costuming (the two intended to wear white tuxedos and top hats while slaughtering Obama and 102 other black Americans) should not encourage us to ignore its hatefulness, and the sources of that hatefulness.
To be clear: No one technically "palled around" with these neo-Nazis. Sarah Palin did not go moose hunting with Cowart and Schlesselman, nor her allies in the press, from Sean Hannity to Mark Stricherz, go bar hopping with the duo. There was no "palling around" because there was no casual relationship. There was something actually far worse: a causal relationship. For, surely, one of the mitigating factors Cowart’s and Sclesselman’s attorneys will point to is the fact that for several weeks a Governor of one of the fifty states, who had secured her party’s nomination for the vice-presidency of the nation, and a variety of serious media outlets had broadcast as newsworthy and significant the "fact" that Barack Obama "palled around" with terrorists.
We all know that terrorists are enemies of the United States so someone who "pals around" with them must at the very least be aiding and abetting the terrorists. Isn’t that what Palin meant to suggest? Young men and women wearing the uniform of the United States are engaged currently in two wars fighting terrorists who threaten our nation. Why should we stand idly by while one of the terrorists’ allies stealthily wins political support when our brothers and sisters are fighting against the same terrorists abroad?
You can hear the objection: We never told anyone to kill! We never told anyone to purchase a short-barreled shotgun, or two handguns, or a rifle and ammunition (all of which were found in Cowart’s and Schlesselman’s possession)! True enough. But, it requires a willful ignorance not to know that questioning the patriotism of the first black candidate for president might capture the attention of racist haters, that suggesting a casual connection between Obama and terrorism was a variety of hate-mongering, and that, long after it had been demonstrated that there was no meaningful relationship between Obama and Ayers, continuing to raise the issue amounted to shouting "fire" in a crowded arena. You can drive one hour from our nation’s capital (to the north or south, I might add) and find KKK and other racist memorabilia. The arena of racism is a crowded one and shouting "fire" is literally incendiary.
I do not believe that any of those who rehearsed the Ayers story wanted Obama dead. I also believe that their language was designed to raise doubts in some, even at the risk of raising hate in others. Such language is most certainly not exculpatory for these neo-Nazis, but is certainly a mitigating factor. I recognized all along, what Mr. Cowart and Mr. Schlesselman did not recognize, that the Ayers story was merely an attempt at character assassination, not real assassination. It was merely a revival of McCarthyite smear tactics, but no one told the neo-Nazis it was just a smear campaign. The confusion should not let Cowart and Schlesselman off the hook for their criminal acts and intents, but neither should it excuse the shameful acts and intents of those who stoked their hate.
Michael Sean Winters