Colbert I. King
Colbert I. King
Opinion Writer

Caution: Words can inflame

I would not have believed it if I hadn’t heard it myself. Monday night, Mike Malloy, host of a nationally syndicated show on satellite radio, took freedom of expression to a really ugly level. Malloy, described on his Web site as a “traditional Liberal Democrat doing his part to return the Democratic Party to its Liberal roots,” talked about the death of Osama bin Laden and the lives lost in the war on terrorism. Malloy said former president George W. Bush was responsible for more deaths than bin Laden, and he asked “So when does SEAL Unit 6, or whatever it’s called, drop in on George Bush?”

Whoa.

Colbert I. King

King writes a column -- sometimes about D.C., sometimes about politics -- that runs on Saturdays.

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Did Malloy suggest that Navy SEALs treat the former president of the United States the same way they did the founder of al-Qaeda in that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan? Forget for a moment the absurdly false and offensive likening of Bush to bin Laden or the body count charge. The suggestion by a talk radio host that Bush should be executed is abhorrent. It warrants, at the very least, condemnation across the political spectrum.

But, unfortunately, tirades such as Malloy’s have become almost commonplace in this country. And they’re heard on the left and right.

Hold your e-mails and letters. There’s no need to remind me that our history is replete with examples of citizens wishing our presidents ill.

John Wilkes Booth, Charles J. Guiteau, Leon Czolgoszand Lee Harvey Oswald come to mind. They earned the infamous title of “assassin” by killing, respectively, presidents Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinleyand John F. Kennedy.

And not for want of trying did house painter Richard Lawrence fail to achieve presidential assassin status. He fell short when the two pistols he aimed at president Andrew Jackson misfired.

Joining Lawrence on the list of failed presidential assassins: saloonkeeper John F. Schrank, Puerto Rican independence activists Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, as well as Samuel Byck, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Sara Jane Moore, John Hinckley Jr., Frank Eugene Corder, Francisco Martin Duranand Robert Pickett.

For a variety of reasons, these men and women failed in their efforts to kill, respectively, presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

So, yes, danger comes with the territory of the American presidency. Political hatred and toxic climates are as old as the republic. And all assassins and wannabes aren’t mentally ill, as Hinckley was.

Some, like Booth, drew inspiration from the rhetoric of their day. Booth’s fanaticism undoubtedly was fueled by the Richmond Enquirer’s venomous 1862 depiction of America’s greatest president. “What shall we call him?” the Enquirer asked in an editorial. “Coward, assassin, savage, murderer of women and babies? Or shall we consider them as embodied in the word fiend, and call him Lincoln, the Fiend?”

A rabid Confederate who hated African Amerians, Booth was helped along in his anger by the words of southern editor Edward A. Pollard, who described Abraham Lincoln as a “Yankee monster of inhumanity and falsehood.” Sentiment against Lincoln ran deep. Editorialized the Dallas Herald on Lincoln’s assassination: “God almighty ordered this event.” Yes, those were inflamed times.

Which gets us to Mike Malloy and the nasty rhetoric of our day. History has nothing on us.

Abrasive, venomous tirades against the president of the United States are daily fare on cable TV and radio talk shows.

Take, for example, President Obama’s tasteful and respectful visit to the World Trade Center site this week, and his wreath-laying and meeting with firefighters and victims’ families.

Absolutely despicable,” said Fox News’ Glenn Beck. “Extraordinarily offensive,” he called it.

Eric Boehlert, writing for Media Matters for America, noted that the Obama-haters in the media have convinced themselves and their followers that “Obama is a fraudulent and illegitimate president.” They fill up the “hate tank,” he said, “by trying to demean the president in the most petty and pointless ways possible.”

The display of contempt, on view with Malloy in his suggestion of Bush’s execution and with Obama’s critics on the right, can have consequences. In this trigger-happy country, it can have consequences indeed.

kingc@washpost.com

 
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