For Allen, a Lesson in the Painful Power of Symbols

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, October 11, 2006

As a Boy Scout in the early 1960s, I earned a pioneering merit badge due in no small measure to my knot-tying skills. (Untying them was a different story.) I could tie, for instance, a simple square knot, which can be used for joining two pieces of rope, and a bowline with stop knots, which can be used on a lifeline thrown to someone who is drowning. I could also fashion a hangman's knot, which was beautifully coiled with an opening that fit snuggly around the neck.

The hangman's knot did not actually count toward the merit badge, but it was the most fun to make. And warnings from the scoutmaster not to play with something that could choke you to death only made it more so.

Revelations that Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) once kept a noose hanging from a ficus tree in his law offices have not infuriated me so much as rekindled my morbid fascination with this tabooed loop of twisted hemp. A rope can be fashioned into a noose using a variety of knots, including the hangman's knot, which is set to kill instantly by breaking the neck, and the gallows knot, which allows the victim to wiggle while dangling and being strangled to death.

Allen's noose display of yore has helped put his reelection campaign in dire straits, and his excuse that the noose was just a part of his "cowboy" persona might not get him off the hook -- especially when campaign talk turns to Iraq and the cowboy mentality that got us hung up over there.

Unlike Allen, when I grew up I stopped messing with nooses. It's child's play if you are a child, but a tool of injustice in the hands of a man. Lethal and loaded with symbolism, a noose today tends to send a message that anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time is fair game for a killing. In that regard, only the mushroom cloud could be any clearer.

Before the mid-1800s, most lynching in the United States did occur on the frontier, with private citizens taking the law into their own hands when the government could not protect them. At the time, both executioner and condemned tended to be white. But all of that changed, drastically, around the mid-1800s, when whites in Southern states began responding to anti-slavery efforts with a blood lust directed at blacks never seen in this country before. Then the loss of the Civil War and the perceived threat to "white supremacy" brought on by Reconstruction resulted in behavior among whites that could easily be classified as mass criminal insanity. Thousands of blacks were hanged, mutilated and burned at the stake, usually in public and often in the name of God.

As Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has noted: "Throughout the South, among all classes the preoccupation with ex-slaves became obsessive. The hatred, fear, loathing and horror of Afro-Americans attained levels of emotional, political and religious intensity that are hard to imagine."

In the past, Allen took to heart the two most virulent symbols of this hatred: the noose and the Confederate flag, which he displayed at home.

When he claims not to have seen the racial implications of such decor, he exposes himself as being either naive in the extreme -- or deceitful.

Some prominent black supporters have thrown Allen a knotted lifeline, and he may yet be pulled free of the allegations. But what he really needed was a good scoutmaster to warn him that playing with nooses can cause rope burn and might even choke a political campaign to death.

E-mail:milloyc@washpost.com

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