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:
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"
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"
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.
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
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.
fact," he said, "it’s the opposite."
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.
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
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.
do I know you’re with the Secret Service?" he asked.
replied the agent, "I’ve got a black suit and black sunglasses and
come on down, and make sure you bring your credentials."
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."
"Sounds like he has a line in to the Secret Service."
"I think Matt Drudge is with the Secret Service."
"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
"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."
if Bush were actually assassinated, then Vice President Dick Cheney would be
demoted to the presidency.
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
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.
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."
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.
Donnie Johnston, reporter for the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg,
VA, wrote about the trickle-down effect of such official repression:
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,’
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.
can be reached at paulkrassner.com