Threatening the president is no joke, even when it is one.


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In a 1971 interview, Groucho Marx told Flash magazine, "I think the only hope this country has is Nixon’s assassination." Yet he was not subsequently arrested for threatening the life of a president. In view of the indictment against David Hilliard, chief of staff of the Black Panther Party, for using similar rhetoric, I wrote to the Justice Department to find out the status of their case against Groucho. This was the response:


 


Dear Mr. Krassner: Responding to your inquiry of July 7th, the United States Supreme Court has held that Title 18 U.S.C., Section 871, prohibits only "true" threats.


It is one thing to say that "I (or we) will kill Richard Nixon" when you are the leader of an organization which advocates killing people and overthrowing the Government; it is quite another to utter the words which are attributed to Mr. Marx, an alleged comedian. It was the opinion of both myself and the United States Attorney in Los Angeles (where Marx’s words were alleged to have been uttered) that the latter utterance did not constitute a "true" threat.


Very truly yours,


James L. Browning, Jr.


United States Attorney


 


At the time, I was the host of a radio talk show on ABC’s FM station in San Francisco. Naturally, I went on the air and read that letter. And then I added, "Well, I’m an alleged comedian. Kill Richard Nixon." But I would never get away with doing something like that in these ultra-fearful times.


In July 2003, the Los Angeles Times published a Sunday editorial cartoon by conservative Michael Ramirez. Depicting a man pointing a gun at President Bush’s head, it was a takeoff on the 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo that showed a Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong prisoner at point-blank range. In the cartoon, the man with the gun was labeled "Politics" and the background was labeled "Iraq."


"I thought it was appropriate," said Ramirez, "because I was drawing a parallel between the politicization of the Vietnam war and the current politicization that’s surrounding the Iraq war related to the Niger uranium story." He claimed not to be advocating violence against Bush.


"In fact," he said, "it’s the opposite."


He explained that he was trying to show that Bush was being discredited by pundits who said the president hyped the WMD threat posed by Iraq and lied in his State of the Union speech about Saddam’s efforts to acquire uranium from Niger for nuclear weapons. Bush later admitted that the accusation was based on bad intelligence.


"President Bush is the target, metaphorically speaking," he said, "of a political assassination because of 16 words that he uttered in the State of the Union. The image, from the Vietnam era, is a very disturbing image. The political attack on the president, based strictly on sheer political motivations, also is very disturbing."


Nevertheless, the cartoon was enough to prompt a visit on Monday by a Secret Service agent who asked to speak with Ramirez but was turned away by an attorney for the Times. The agent had called Ramirez and asked if he could visit. Ramirez assumed it was a hoax and jokingly said yes.


"How do I know you’re with the Secret Service?" he asked.


"Well," replied the agent, "I’ve got a black suit and black sunglasses and credentials."


"Sure, come on down, and make sure you bring your credentials."


The agent arrived half an hour later.


In an interview by Brooke Gladstone on WNYC radio, Ramirez said, "The firestorm began actually with Matt Drudge’s report on Sunday evening, which was a little interesting because he had the headline on his report that said that I was being investigated by the Secret Service. And I really wasn’t contacted by the Secret Service until the next morning at 10:30."


Gladstone: "Sounds like he has a line in to the Secret Service."


Ramirez: "I think Matt Drudge is with the Secret Service."


Gladstone: "Now, threatening the president is against federal law, and it’s the Secret Service’s job to protect the president against potential threats. Do you think that Bush’s security detail should have felt threatened by your cartoon?"


Ramirez: "No, I think that this is a pretty famous image, and I think the use of the metaphor [is justified] especially in light of the fact that it really is a cartoon that favors him and his administration."


Irony aside, if Bush were actually assassinated, then Vice President Dick Cheney would be demoted to the presidency.


Other examples of the thought police in action:


A man who shall remain anonymous sent Bush a letter saying that if he required a smallpox shot for the troops, he should get a shot himself. He was visited by a Secret Service Agent.


Another man, Richard Humphreys, happened to get into a harmless barside discussion with a truck driver. A bartender who overheard the conversation realized that Bush was scheduled to visit nearby Sioux Falls the next day, and he told police that Humphreys–who made a joke with a biblical reference–had talked about a "burning Bush" and the possibility of someone pouring a flammable liquid on Bush and lighting it. Humphreys was arrested for threatening the president.


"I said God might speak to the world through a burning Bush," he testified during his trial. "I had said that before and I thought it was funny."


Nevertheless, he was found guilty and sentenced to more than three years in prison. He decided to appeal, on the basis that his comment was a prophecy, protected under his right to freedom of speech.


In August, Donnie Johnston, reporter for the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, VA, wrote about the trickle-down effect of such official repression:


"A few days ago, a public official called me over to his car to discuss his displeasure with the war in Iraq and the way the Bush administration is handling the nation’s economy. This well-respected man would talk only from his vehicle, saying he was fearful of criticizing the president or his policies in public. Before our conversation ended, the man told me of other public officials who also are fearful of speaking out. ‘You have to be careful what you say in public these days,’ he added."


"Almost daily, someone informs me that he is scared of openly expressing his views. Even those who do dare to speak out do so in hushed tones, fearful of what ears might overhear. In the politically charged atmosphere that exists in America today, having the wrong person hear criticism of the government can lead to trouble. That became evident recently when an entertainer [a singer] who innocently joked that President Bush had ‘chicken legs’ was banned from performing further at Borders Books and Music in Fredericksburg."


In our nation’s gallop toward a police state, rampant paranoia has become our Gross National Product. And it’s not always related to national security. Some elementary schools now ban parents from bringing cameras to record their children performing in the annual Christmas pageant. Why? Because authorities are afraid that those videotapes might find their way into the horny hands of breathless pedophiles.


 


Paul Krassner can be reached at [paulkrassner.com]


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