The strength of this nation always has been that Americans can say without fear of official reprisal pretty much anything they please as long as they don’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater that isn’t actually on fire, incite riots or say the word “bomb” in an airport.
They also should expect a visit from the Secret Service if they suggest that someone shoot the president. Leaders of other nations perceived as threats to the American way of life, however, are fair game for verbal termination. Fidel Castro, for instance, has long been on the real and imaginary hit list of most of us, at least since the Cuban missile crisis more than 40 years ago. Knocking off Iraq’s Saddam Hussein probably would have been a far less traumatic solution than invading his country at the cost of thousands of lives and billions upon billions of dollars.
That, in a nutshell, was what evangelist Pat Robertson, the son of a former U.S. senator and a one-time candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, was saying on his “700 Club” show the other day when he advocated “taking out” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, one of Castro’s few allies,
It seems a bit more than unfortunate that his assassination talk came at a time when this government is trying to cool tensions with Venezuela, a major supplier of oil to the United States. That strain has become more pronounced since Chavez’s private charges that the United States is trying to overthrow him, a contention that can only gain more credence with this current flap.
The aging Robertson has lost some of his influence these days, even in the Christian conservative circles where he has been a leader. Similar intemperate remarks immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, indicating he felt that the attacks were God’s response to national evils like abortion and homosexuality, brought severe condemnation of him and fellow evangelist Jerry Falwell.
Although the history of religion is replete with violence, and the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is filled with blood and gore and rape and incest and other perversions, the Ten Commandments that we as Christians hold as the core of our beliefs is pretty specific about killing. Thou shall not do it, brother. So to hear a nationally prominent man of the cloth not only support it, but actually propose it, was a bit jarring, if not downright shocking, a subsequent apology notwithstanding.
For any government to do what Robertson suggests is against international law. Even if one says that with a wink, “terminating with extreme prejudice,” to use the CIA term, is not a subject for open discussion lest someone plant a “pop” in your cigar, as was reportedly proposed if not actually attempted on Castro. One of the deterrents to this way of solving political problems is that if it engenders the same kind of reprisals on your own leaders.
Those who make a living out of theorizing about conspiracies long have been convinced that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was linked to the attempts his administration made on Castro. While there is no concrete evidence to support such a contention, there is enough to keep the suspicion alive. It has to be with that in mind that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was quick to denounce Robertson’s remarks, stating that “our department doesn’t do that kind of thing.” Well, maybe not. But we certainly know what agency has, don’t we? The State Department issued its own denouncement of the remarks, as did some evangelical groups. Others remained quiet, apparently embarrassed.
The problem is that despite his waning influence, Robertson is not just an “average citizen,” as Rumsfeld described him. He still has a high-enough profile and following because of his cable television show to bring instant worldwide media coverage when he says something outrageous and controversial, no matter how foolish and badly thought out. Sadly, it gives those who are opposed to our interests leverage they shouldn’t have, just more bad publicity about bloodthirsty, arrogant, lawless Americans.
This nation is trying to offset an image tarnished by the mistreatment of detainees in U.S. custody and the war in Iraq generally. The last thing needed is for someone the rest of the world perceives, rightly or wrongly, as speaking for a sizable flock of Americans to make us even more of a target.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)