You used to have to do something significant to get death threats
Now all you have to do is vote
A school board member from Leesburg, Virginia, just west of Washington D.C., resigned her position on the board last month after receiving eight months of abusive, threatening, and profane emails, phone calls and Facebook messages. What had she done to deserve the tsunami of hate that came her way? Well, she had supported school mask mandates in Loudon County and had spoken out in favor of racial equity in the school system there. Facing a recall election put together by a group of conservative parents, she was going to bed every night with the red and blue spinning lights of sheriffs’ patrol cars parked outside her house because the county public schools security and safety team had asked the county sheriff to provide patrols at the home of every school board member.
Republican Congressman Fred Upton from Michigan received a hateful phone call filled with profanity containing mentions of his death that came right up to but did not cross the line into death threats after he voted for the infrastructure bill last Friday. Upton is one of 13 Republicans who crossed over and voted with Democrats for the measure. “You’re a fucking piece of shit traitor. I hope you die,” the caller told Upton. “I hope everybody in your fucking family dies.” The caller went on to tell Upton he hoped members of his staff die, causing Upton to close the two offices he maintains in his district, reopening them only after he had increased security.
Other Republicans in the group including Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois received similar invective-filled threating calls after one of their colleagues, Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, tweeted out their office and in some cases personal phone numbers to her 350,000 followers following the vote.
A Long Island man, Kenneth Gasper, 64 years old, from Lake Ronkonkoma in Nassau County, was arrested on Wednesday after making a death threat against a New York Republican member of Congress who voted with Democrats on the infrastructure bill last week. He has been charged with one count of “aggravated second-degree harassment” for making the call to Republican Representative Andrew Garbarino who represents New York District 2 along the south shore of Long Island.
The Associated Press reported that Republican leaders in the House had issued a tweet, that they later deleted, warning that “Americans won’t forget” a vote for the “socialist” infrastructure bill. “Time to name names and hold these fake republicans accountable,” tweeted arch-conservative gun-toting Representative Lauren Boebert, R-Colo.
It’s worth noting that every single congressional district, including those of Republicans who voted against the bill, will receive funds dispersed under the infrastructure law after it’s signed by President Biden on Monday. Democratic strategists should be prepared to record every instance of Republican congressmen taking credit for projects funded by the bill, because you know that’s exactly what they’ll do.
This is the kind of stuff that cheapens the grand American tradition of issuing death threats against people you disagree with. Used to be you had to be for something truly controversial like civil rights or gun control to reach that exalted plateau which made calling for your death necessary. Now all you have to do is be on a school board and vote for requiring kids to wear masks so they’ll be safe from a deadly disease, and they’re out there calling for your head on a pike. I mean, when every Tom, Dick, and Harry can pick up a phone and threaten to kill you because you cast a vote for good roads, safe bridges, better airports and bringing super-fast internet service and cell phone coverage to places that don’t have it, what is this country coming to?
It’s tempting to say we’ve crossed a new line when death threats become a regular feature of the culture wars over stuff like masks and vaccines and better roads, but it’s not true. Death threats over run of the mill disagreements have been around since they had to be printed up on handbills and nailed to the trunks of trees. They’re as American as, well, apple pie.
What may be new is the source. They used to come from the radical fringes of American politics. The far-left ultra-radical Weather Underground was fond of issuing threats against establishment figures they didn’t like, and so were such exemplars of the right-wing as the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacist militia groups and gun crazies with thousands of rounds of ammunition lying around in the beds of their pickups or stored in their refrigerators.
Now it appears that soccer dads and book-group moms have started thumbing-in their threats via email and text message. Maybe it’s the convenience of modern technology that has mainstreamed the death threat and cheapened it. Back when I was receiving death threats for championing the Hemings family as descendants of Thomas Jefferson or writing op-eds calling for stricter gun control, they came in the mail, and many of the messages consisted of words pasted onto a sheet of paper using cut-out letters from magazines. Making a death threat took some effort.
What all death threats have in common, however, is how pathetic they are. The guy who called up and left a voicemail for Fred Upton didn’t identify himself, nor have most of those threatening other members of congress and school board members. It takes some courage to run for office and take votes on controversial issues. These days we’re finding it even takes courage to vote on such mundane matters as masks in schools.
Death threats being flung around willy-nilly today have everything to do with how wretched and lame are those who make them. People who run for school boards, like the woman from Leesburg, Virginia, put their names out there. They are identifiable, as are members of congress or the election officials who are also receiving death threats and invective. You can look them up. Their email addresses are a click or two away. A visit on Google will also provide you with their photographs and background, like what college they went to or even how many kids they have.
To make an anonymous death threat isn’t only contemptible, it’s feeble. It lacks the power of conviction and belief that comes from putting your name on something and making it count.
All the recent death threats against elected officials and ordinary people taking controversial political positions come from the political right-wing and they reek of frailty and desperation. When a person has done something so profound you feel the need to threaten to kill him or her, you are drawing a line under the rightness of their cause and removing whatever earth lies beneath your own.
I got one death threat in a phone call back in the day. We didn’t have caller ID, and I hadn’t started to let my calls go straight to voice mail yet, so I decided to listen to him. After the guy railed and threatened me for a minute or so, he kind of ran out of steam and I began talking to him. I can’t recall the details of our talk other than him telling me I was a “race traitor” – that word still comes up a lot, it seems – and that Blacks should not have the right to vote. But I can recall how it felt to listen to him.
I felt like we were arguing not about the past but the future, and the future was winning because the future is unpredictable and open to change while the past remains static and subject only to correction. I could hear in his voice that he had already lost, and he knew it.
Wars, cultural or otherwise, are not kind to those whose beliefs belie them, and hate, it seems, is more often than not the product of pathos.