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Omid Safi Headshot

Terrorizing the American Politic

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There have been many low points in this protracted and seemingly never-ending Presidential season. Race and gender wedge-games dominated much of the primary scene, with socioeconomic class being an equally uncomfortable and all-too-often silent factor. Religion too has been present, when it should not have been, like the false rumor that Obama is secretly a Muslim, a myth still believed by some 13% of the voting public.

It has been a nasty campaign, already. Many of us have already run out of righteous indignation, but what we have seen these last few days might be lowest point, and a portent of things to come.

This past week, Sarah Palin stated that Obama was "palling around with terrorists." To justify her comments, Palin referred to the venerable New York Times, the same media that she dismisses as being part of the liberal bias of mainstream media. I imagine that when most Americans think of the word "terrorist", they probably have in mind extremists who drop bombs on civilians, or use violence to terrify civilians. Yes, sadly even though it is not true, most Americans probably think of "Muslims" when they hear terrorists. What they probably do not think of is a 1960's activist who has never been found guilty of a crime, and is today a distinguished professor of Education at University of Illinois at Chicago. Yup, this Bill Ayers is Sarah Palin's "terrorist."

CNN, The New Republic, Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times, and others proved Palin's was a false assertion. Here is CNN's verdict:

Verdict: False. There is no indication that Ayers and Obama are now "palling around," or that they have had an ongoing relationship in the past three years. Also, there is nothing to suggest that Ayers is now involved in terrorist activity or that other Obama associates are.

If Palin had more integrity, she would have offered the Times' full citation:

"But the two men do not appear to have been close. Nor has Mr. Obama ever expressed sympathy for the radical views and actions of Mr. Ayers, whom he has called 'somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8.'"

When presented by facts to the contrary, Palin refused to take her comments back.

Make no mistake about it: this is part of McCain/Palin's strategy to keep mentioning Obama and terrorists in the same sentence (remember how Bush repeated 9/11 and Iraq in the same sentence?) to keep driving more people to vote for them. Republican partisans, like Larry C. Johnson, have already said that they plan to make this issue what Willie Horton was to Dukakis, and Swiftboat was to John Kerry. Their plan is simple: to prey on citizens' unspoken fears by associating Obama and terrorists, and by extension associating Obama with Muslims. This seems sure to follow in wake of the anti-Islamic DVDs "Obsession" and "ThirdJihad", with 28 million copies of their hate-filled product distributed for free so far. As I had documented, this campaign is orchestrated by a networking of Israeli groups, Christian evangelical, pro-Israel lobby groups in the States, and Republican groups.

McCain and Palin, behind in the polls and even further behind in the Electoral College estimates, have already stated that they plan to make Obama's "character" the main theme of their last few weeks of campaign. Hooray. Even less discussion of the grave issues that face us domestically and internationally, and more and more of the vengeful politics of destruction and character assassination.

Here is my ultimate concern: McCain and Palin are behind in polls, they are running out of time, and they have long ran out of ideas. So what are they appealing to is the very poison of fear and trepidation, the very essence of terror. I do not wish to fall into the same rhetorical gutter that Palin and McCain are wallowing in by calling them terrorists, but I do want to pick my words more carefully. What they are doing now is none other than terrorizing the American politic.

What is the meaning of "terrorizing"?

The venerable Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as: "1 : to fill with terror or anxiety : scare."This is in fact exactly what McCain and Palin, and the machinery behind them have done: they have filled the American politics with a rhetoric of terror and anxiety. "Be afraid, be very very afraid" seems to be their message. "Vote for us, or at least don't vote for Obama, or the sky will fall down." "The terrorists will hunt down your children, and the all-powerful god of the market will collapse." "Be afraid, and vote for us, or traditional marriages will fall, and with it Western Civilization as we know it." This is nothing but the continuation of Bush's loathing for negotiation and subtlety, when he equated Obama with Nazi appeasers in 1938.

Obama, for all of his many failings throughout this long election process, has dared to appeal to something lofty in humanity, by daring to dream of a better community, a better America, and a better world. "Yes, we can!" has gone from a simplistic chant to a hope, a vision of hope for a better tomorrow for all of us.

Ultimately what we have to say to McCain and Palin is this: yes, many of us are afraid, many of us are scared, but we are not going to live in fear. And we will not allow fear to be our ultimate calling, our supreme motivation. There is something more divine, more noble in us, a sentiment in us that can allow us to move closer to God even as we embrace one another. That sentiment has a name, and its name is not fear or terror. The name of this divine inclination is love.

This is the continuation of the legacy of Martin Luther King, who sought to wed together love and power:

What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best, power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.We will not live in terror, whether terror of international terrorist networks, or the terror that McCain and Palin seek to inflict on the American political system. Live for a brighter day, yes we can.


McCain and Palin--and Obama--claim to be Christians. It would be lovely if they remembered that one of the fundamental truth claims of the Christian tradition is the possibility of redemption. That which was the instrument to hang criminals, the cross, becomes (for Christians) the very epitome of redemption and salvation. The same message is the case in Islam, where a creature made out of clay is made to be the representative of God on Earth, where a simple orphaned shepherd becomes God's chosen messenger. This same redemption has to be brought to the American politic. It too deserves to be transformed from a terrorized politic to one based on hope, justice, and a meaningful peace for all.
Cross-posted from Beliefnet's Progressive Revival blog