Long before Secret Service officials reported that President elect Barack Obama has gotten more threats against him than any other president-elect, the buzz from many African-Americans was: Do you think that they'll try to do something to him? The "they" was take your pick, a lone deranged crazy, the KKK, skinhead or Aryan Nation wackos, shadowy intelleigence operatives, or foreign hit men. The assumption was that not only would the first African-American president be the most watched, scrutinized and criticized president in American history, but also the most physically endangered.
The even bigger assumption is that race is the reason that Obama is a bigger target than any other president-elect. Obviously there are enough race baiting kooks and nuts loose to stir jitters about Obama's safety. But race is only one reason, a big one, but still only one reason why the Secret Service must be hyper vigilant in guarding presidents, and even more vigilant in guarding Obama. The Secret Service noted that threats often come fast and furious against officials whether a president-elect or any other official immediately after their election. The reasons are varied; many of those who make threats are disgruntled at the views of the officeholder, fear change, or just simply make threats out of ignorance and stupidity.
But Obama represents something unique in politics that goes beyond race, and it's that uniqness that makes him a potential target. His message of hope and change stirred images of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King , Jr. But in some ways the luster on Obama's star at this stage of his career has even outshone that of King and the Kennedys. Unlike the Kennedys he's an African-American. Unlike King he's the first African-American presidential candidate who won. And unlike King and the Kennedys he has drawn an instant global throng of admirers who see in him the embodiment of change and a fresh direction for US policy on the war and the easing of global tensions. He's also seen as a potential president who can put a diverse, humane face on American foreign policy.
These are the very same qualities that stir the deep fury, hatred and resentment among a handful of loose screwed malcontents and hate mongers. The thick list of fringe and hate groups as well as the hordes of unbalanced violence prone individuals running free in America can fill a telephone book. The long history of hate violence in America further is more than enough to raise the antenna on the danger of violence against prominent political figures.
The first troubling hint of this with Obama came the moment that he announced that he was a presidential candidate in February 2007. The personal death threats began flooding in to his campaign. Obama had the dubious distinction of being the earliest presidential contender to be assigned Secret Service protection on the campaign trail. That didn't satisfy some. Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson fired off a letter to Secret Service officials practically demanding that the Secret Service provide all the resources and personnel it could to insure Obama and the other presidential candidates safety. Thompson didn't say exactly what prompted him to fret over whether the Secret Service was doing all it could to protect the candidates, but almost certainly Thompson heard the whispers and nervous questions from his constituents about Obama's safety.
As the crowds grew bigger at Obama rallies and his public visibility grew even greater, the Secret Service increased the number of agents assigned to guard him. The ramp up in protection was a good move. At the same time, Obama campaign aides and volunteers continued to report occasional racial taunts and jibes when they passed out literature and pitched Obama in some areas. This further increased the jitters that Obama was at risk. As the showdown with John McCain heated up in the general election, the flood of crank, crackpot, and screwball threats that promise murder and mayhem toward Obama continued to pour in. That prompted the Secret Service to tighten security and take even more elaborate measures to insure his safety. The Secret Service, of course, must spare no effort to make sure he's fully protected.
This didn't totally ease the fears about his safety. But it offered some assurance that the government was doing everything humanly possible to insure his safety. That was especially important given the deep doubt and even paranoid suspicion that some blacks have that shadowy government agencies were complicit in the assassination of King, and the fervent belief of millions of other Americans that the CIA or other shadowy government agencies were deeply complicit in the killing, if not outright murder of JFK.
Obama was one year old when JFK was killed. He was six years old when King and Kennedy were slain. He well knows the horrid violent history of America and the very real danger that violence poses to a charismatic president who energized and excited millions and promised political change and implicitly racial change. That's the unfortunate price that elected officials, in this case a new president, who inspire hope must pay.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).