Now that the presidential campaign is over, we can finally start to look back on the race with some degree of objectivity. This is the moment that we political scientists live for: our chance to be clinically detached while attempting to engage a public that is still half-interested in politics.
This story is a few weeks old, but it gives a perfect snapshot of the 2012 election. We’ve already posted articles here and here, about out how childish and uninformed American political discourse has become. However, when we start to talk about assassination threats on Twitter, everything else starts to look pretty good in comparison.
Yes, assassination threats on Twitter. I wish I was joking.
It turns out that after the foreign policy debate a few weeks ago, an astounding number of Obama supporters took to Twitter to vent against Mitt Romney. And to issue death threats. To take one of many, many examples, look at the words of I_B_New_York: “i jus used close to $200 worth of food stamps today…Romney dont take that away..70% of America will assassinate u.” More examples are listed at the bottom of the article.
The threats kept coming through at least Monday, according to examiner.com. Once again, to take a particularly colorful example: Jamarea Gage writes: “I’ll personally f*****g kill Romney if he try’s some dumb nazi s**t f**k that.” Or this tweet by Lifted Boy: “I crash that f**king airplane that that f**got n**ga Romney, stab Mrs. Romney in her G** D**N esophagus. & won’t stop until the cops come in.”
In a way, I’m not that surprised. In fact, I’ve come to fully expect this kind of rhetorical violence, given our current political climate. What is interesting to note, however, is that there seems to be a double standard in the media’s coverage of Twitter death threats. Very few media outlets have touched the Romney threats, while two relatively isolated cases of assassination threats against Obama have received a staggering amount of media attention.
The first came back in September, when there was a national furor over 16-year-old Alyssa Douglas tweeting the following:
Her Twitter and Facebook accounts were promptly deleted and she became a national symbol for racism and bigotry. A Daily Kos article (written, incidentally, under the hilarious nom de plume therehastobeaway) opined, “when a 16 year-old white girl takes to Twitter to openly call for the assassination of our President, you have got to wonder where we, as a society, have gone wrong;” [emphasis in the original]. The author went on to encourage viewers to contact the FBI, the Secret Service, and Ms. Douglas’ high school Principal. Ms. Douglas herself was quickly inundated with hate mail. Worst of all, she doubtless found life for her entire family turned completely upside down due to a single thoughtless, childish action.
The second example also took place back in September when Secret Service officers arrested Donte Jamar Sims in Charlotte, NC. Sims had tweeted, among other things, “Ima hit president Obama with that Lee Harvey Oswald swag” and “Well IMA Assassinate president Obama this evening.” I suppose on one level we can draw a distinction between the immediacy and specificity of Mr. Sims’ threats against the relative improbability of JCBaltodano’s “If Romney wins the elections I will start a national riot to kill his a**!” but that’s really missing the bigger point at hand.
All of this paints a very disturbing picture. Many leading Democrats placed the blame for Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting on Republican rhetoric. They were right, in at least one sense- not in suggesting that Jared Lee Loughner drew his inspiration from Sarah Palin, but in recognizing that there were larger cultural reasons for this violence. And while death threats against the President have been the subject of much media attention- much of it warranted, some of it perhaps not (as in the case of Alyssa Douglas)- there has been just as much, if not more hatred coming from Obama supporters in recent weeks.
The political climate is in shambles, and all of this goes to illustrate a point I made in my very first post on this blog: that a rotten culture leads to rotten politics. You can’t expect to fix the vitriol and violence in the political sphere without first addressing the deep-seated cultural problems that underlie this kind of rhetoric. If we continue down this path, it seems likely that violent rhetoric will soon lead to more and more acts of political violence.
Beneath the surface of every assassination threat lies a deep and unyielding spiritual need. And no amount of hand-wringing or public shaming by therehastobeaway is going to fix that need.
Here are a couple examples from the MSN article mentioned at the beginning of the article: