04/04/2008 12:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The New Assassins Don't Use Guns

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of Martin Luther King's death. 1968, like 2008, was an election year in a time of war. Then, as now, a bitter political battle was raging. But the '60s were a time when gunfire changed the political landscape. Today's assassins use different weapons.

We have neither the time nor the ability to address the issue of assassination conspiracies here. The '60s saw the deaths of JFK, King, Bobby Kennedy, and Malcolm X. I can't rule out the possibility of conspiracy in these murders -- after all, Lincoln's death was a conspiracy -- but can't resolve the question either way.

What can be said is that assassination was part of the spirit of those times. Whether by design, or as the result of unseen social forces, murder became a force for political change over and over again during the course of that decade. But something changed -- the zeitgeist? a secret cabal's strategy? -- and the killings stopped. Left-leaning leaders stopped dying, and while there were several unsuccessful attempts against conservatives (Wallace, Ford, Reagan) the chain of assassination seemed to have ended.

But then, they're not needed anymore. A new form of political murder has taken its place -- character assassination. Over the last two decades, the Right has learned how to destroy its enemies without leaving a body. Hit teams roam the country, willing and eager to destroy reputations and careers, with the U.S. press corps as accomplices.

If Martin Luther King were alive today there would be no need for gunfire. He died just as he began speaking out forcefully against the Vietnam War. Were he alive to speak out against the occupation of Iraq -- as he undoubtedly would -- it's easy to imagine how the the character assassins would conduct their hit.

First, an "unnamed source" in the Justice Department would start talking to friendly reporters -- off the record, of course -- about "evidence" that Dr. King was receiving money from suspect Middle Eastern sources. Then the FBI's recordings of Dr. King's private life would be leaked to a friendly media outlet -- probably Matt Drudge. After that, Fox News would scour all the available video of Dr. King's speeches, carefully editing them so that they sound more inflammatory and less peace-loving. They would then broadcast them in an endless loop, as the YouTube hits of these misleading clips reached into the millions.

That's a much more effective way to destroy someone than a gun. Bullets only kill the physical body, but character assassination destroys the person's reputation -- and their political effectiveness. Martyrs are a powerful force, but disgraced leaders can't threaten the status quo.

Take the Clintons. They were the first to be subjected to the full force of the New Assassins. The Right saw a real threat in Bill Clinton. So they went to work -- with rumors about Vince Foster, expensive investigations into his private life, slurs about him and his family, and Ken Starr's investigation. Hardly a day went by without a new attack. President Clinton and his inner circle were subjected to an assault of such intensity that I'm sure it's unimaginable to those who haven't experienced it.

That's why it's especially tragic to watch Hillary Clinton's campaign adopt so many of the tactics of its 1990s opposition. If stories are true, they leaked the picture of Obama in tribal dress to ... the Drudge Report. They've gone to at least one of the ringleaders of that "vast right-wing conspiracy" Hillary spoke about (yes, there was one) in search for support. They've circulated flyers about Obama's reproductive rights record that they knew to be false, and continue to spread false stories that Obama's "not a professor."

Perhaps it's some form of Stockholm Syndrome, or what leftist educator Paulo Friere used to call "internalizing the oppressor consciousness." It may explain their vitriolic reaction to expressions of idealism from Obama and his supporters. I'm sympathetic, on one level: It's hard to hang on to your idealism after you've been a target of the New Assassins. That's a form of sniper fire Hillary Clinton has faced, and it can't be easy.

As for the press, so willing and eager to play their part, they're not evil or even venal. They're just people who get up every morning and do their jobs. In their hearts, they're good people and good citizens. They just don't see the larger picture, or the way their actions are being used to destroy innocent people for political purposes.

Sure, some will say, but it's always been this way. As Jeff Cohen points out, the press was busy attacking Dr. King right up to the moment of his death. And the presidential election of 1800 was filled with vicious rumors in the press. But what's different today is the systematic nature of the assault, the willing complicity of supposedly 'neutral' reporters...and the unprecedented effectiveness of new media as weapons of personal destruction.

Where's Rod Serling when we need him? The political apparatchiks, the press corps, the ordinary Americans looking for a juicy news story to liven up their lives - they're like characters in one of those moralistic Twilight Zone episodes. Remember The Monsters Are Coming to Maple Street? It's like that -- a story of invasion and horror, where it turns out the enemy to be feared is ... us.

We may not be the New Assassins. But as long as we stand by and let them do their work, we're guilty too. Let's stop them once and for all. What better way to remember Martin Luther King?