Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, June 09, 2006

On Simple Human Decency

by Ben Metcalf


Harper's Magazine (June 2006)


Before I attempt to fill these pages with my disgust, which the odd reader who knows me will surely expect, I am obliged to address a preliminary concern, which that same odd reader may safely ignore. Some time has passed since I last raised my voice to the multitude, and whereas literary taste does not seem to have advanced much in the interim, and I assume is still arrayed so as to engage only the weak-minded and dull, I find that I am no longer able to discern with any accuracy where the bounds of simple human decency lie. This would bother me even less than does the taste issue were it not for the fact that ground gained or lost in the theater of decency tends now and then to affect the law, and it has long been a personal goal of mine to avoid capture and imprisonment.

I am therefore led to wonder what the common citizen is allowed to "say" anymore, in print or otherwise, and still feel reasonably sure that some indignant team of G-men, or else a pair of gung-ho local screws, will not drag him away to a detention center, there to act out, with the detainee as a prop, that familiar scene in which one hero cop or another is patriotically unable to resist certain outbursts against the detainee and what were once imagined to be the detainee's constitutional rights. Because I am loath to violate whatever fresh new mores the people have agreed upon, or have been told they agree upon, and because I do not care to have my ass kicked repeatedly in a holding cell while I beg to see a lawyer, I almost hesitate to ask the following question. I will ask it, though, out of what used to be called simple human decency:

Am I allowed to write that I would like to hunt down George W Bush, the president of the United States, and kill him with my bare hands?

Let me be clear that I have no wish to perform such a deed in fact, nor do I want anyone else to destroy bodily what is, at least in the technical sense, a fellow human being. (Let me be equally clear that the above qualification, although true, is intended primarily as a legal ploy and should in no way be attributed to my claimed pacifism, which today's prosecutor might find a way to use against me. I would also like excused from the proceedings my personal feelings for George W Bush, embarrassment and rage, as they could probably be turned to my disadvantage as well.) In truth, I bring neither a message nor a promise of violence. I seek only to gauge what level of discourse is still acceptable in this country by asking, in the hope that I might someday participate in that discourse, whether I am free to posit that it would probably be great fun, and a boon to all mankind, if I were to slaughter the president of the United States with my bare hands.


This caution is despicable, yes, but it cannot be helped. If I am to remain at large, then here and there a sentence will need to be perverted. I harbor no desire to become a litmus test for a justice system I already understand to be base, or to look on from the dock as my words are converted into the mathematical symbols so many Americans now expect them to be, indicative of quantities rather than qualities, each best thought of as a price so as to aid in the computation of a verdict or a bill. All I ask is that these particular words be read literally, which I gather is not yet the same as their being received as a dumb stream of numbers.

In 1917, before even a handful of presidents had been offed (and when Wilson, one of the worst, remained on), our first red-scare Congress resolved to build up a legislative wall between the chief executive and his many potential executioners. Murder was already a crime in this country, as was the attempt to commit murder, but the law did not differentiate between a president and a dirty voter, at least where victimhood was concerned, despite the fact that the president clearly was not of the people, was not a common citizen given great responsibility by the people, but was rather a great man in need of uncommon protection from the people. That is, he was a party hack, often delusional, whose permission to rob and mislead the people for the benefit of his friends had not yet been cemented into law, and whose ability to perform that function was being compromised every time one of the suckers managed to shoot him.

I hardly mean to imply that George W Bush is a delusional party hack whose aim is to rob and mislead us for the benefit of his friends. That idea deserves to be stated outright: George W Bush is a delusional party hack whose aim is to rob and mislead us for the benefit of his friends. What I mean to imply is that his free ride on our backs was made possible by the clever solution Congress found to its conundrum back in 1917: a law that deems guilty of a federal offense anyone who knowingly and willfully deposits for conveyance in the mail ... any letter, paper, writing, print, missive, or document containing any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States ... or knowingly and willfully otherwise makes any such threat ...

Consider for a moment the simple brilliance of the language here. It presupposes, not always wrongly, that the stupidity of the American character will demand an announcement of any grand and deadly intention beforehand, and it manages also, via that lovely invocation of the mail, to implicate as a possible assassin (and certainly an "inciter to violence") anyone who does not adequately curb his anger in a publication. All publications were then, and most still are, conveyed through the mail. Touche.

The non-postal aspect of this edict ("or knowingly and willfully otherwise makes any such threat") has proved handy many times over in the persecution of those unlucky or unwise enough to swear a physical oath against the president within earshot of a fink, such as when a prospective Vietnam draftee (Watts v United States) was overheard to say, "If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is LBJ"; or when the Black Panther David Hilliard was said to have said, "We will kill Nixon" (and went somehow unkilled himself); or when an obviously disturbed man (United States v Frederickson) was quoted as saying that he would "have to kill" Jimmy Carter; or when an already confined mental patient (United States v Howell) calmly explained to a Reagan-era FBI agent that "If released, I would make my way to Washington and kill him - I will kill the president"; or when a brig-bound and pissed-off sailor (United States v Ogren) was heard by his guard to say of Bill Clinton, "Hell, fuck the president ... if I could get out of here right now, I would get a gun and kill that bastard".

Yet as much as I admire these flouters of a law that serves not public need but rather the greed of a conceited oligarchy {1}, I suspect that they are but secondary targets in this ongoing raid, and I doubt that their separation from the American flock has improved presidential safety so much as it has lessened the willingness of marginally more literate lambs, the ones who publish, to test their shepherds with anything sharper than the conventionally approved tropes of the day.

{1} Especially the angry seaman, who reportedly produced this further ejaculation against Clinton: "I'm going to shove a gun up his ass, and I'm going to blow his fucking brains out". Where is that spirit today?

Here are those tropes: the president is ignorant; the president is cruel; the president is a zealot; the president is a tool of the corporations; the president hides his agenda from the people; the president's agenda endangers the people; the president is a thief; the president is a madman; the president is a fraternity boy; the president is a warlord; the president is a drunkard; the president is a criminal; the president is protected by his cronies; the president is a smug prevaricator; the president should be removed from office.

True, George W Bush is an ignorant, cruel, closed-minded, avaricious, sneaky, irresponsible, thieving, brain-damaged frat boy with a drinking problem and a taste for bloodshed, whose numerous crimes have been abetted by the moral corruption of his party cohort and whose contempt for American military lives alone warrants his impeachment, but what has it ever won us to say so? How has it profited the people for their writers to argue that a wealthy, comfortable citizen deserves a wealthy, comfortable retirement when we all know full well that he has earned confinement and conviction and perhaps even a request for that barbaric death penalty he so loudly supports? What goal, besides an impoverished guarantee of my own personal "freedom", is served by a refusal to acknowledge that I might easily, and enjoyably, rid us of this man forever with my very hands?


At this point I should probably reiterate that I (that is, the corporeal, arrestable "I" that the initial "I" above will predictably be mistaken for) am a peaceful man, with no actual wish to exact payment for anyone's continued debasement of humanity by feeling the life drain out of him, slowly, through the inordinately sensitive nerves in my fingers and palms. I would much prefer that the president sleep soundly in his bed at night, even as the 2,376 American soldiers whose lives his lies have ended sleep soundly, if not so warmly, in theirs. I would ask, in fact, that the president feel no pain whatsoever, as is felt daily or hourly by the 17,469 Americans blessed by his bellicosity with their wounds. I would hope him untroubled even by guilt, as might haunt any normal human being who had caused the deaths of more than 30,000 Iraqi civilians in order, it would seem, to invite the wrath of the world's people down upon the heads of his own, so deeply does my kindness extend.

I worry, though, that this Christian attitude will buy me little leeway in the courts, and that my plea for a literal reading of these lines will be rejected in favor of a more liberal approach, and that I may have inadvertently left myself open to a charge of glibness, which I understand is even further out of fashion these days than is kindness. Therefore I have already begun the assembly of my legal team.

In the first chair I would like Floyd Abrams, who defended Judith Miller after she had converted the front page of the New York Times into a flyer for Bush's prewar propaganda and then refused to name which of her administration "sources" had blown the cover of an intelligence operative who dared to be married to a man willing to say that our government was peddling murderous bullshit. Generations may pass before we see it as such, but this was the elevation of the publicist's grind to an art form, and it was big of Floyd to hop in and defend it.

I would very much like Floyd to hop in and defend my art, too. Admittedly, mine has not yet shown itself able to maim and kill on a level commensurate with Judith's (which rates, at a minimum, 49,845 assists in the casualties quoted above), but it is not without its own quiet panache, and I imagine that it could, despite its obvious weaknesses (fairness, balance, compassion), imperil my liberty to a degree worthy of any first-rate attorney's time and gamesmanship. Why, then, when I called Floyd to discuss the central question of this essay (if not its actual thesis), and recited verbatim that standout passage wherein I ask whether I am allowed to write that I would like to hunt down George W Bush, the president of the United States, and kill him with my bare hands, did he not respond with an immediate offer of legal representation? Why did he offer instead, in an unhurried and reflective tone, a learned gloss on the case law surrounding "language calling for criminal conduct", which shed a great deal of light on the predicaments of others but, it seemed, precious little on my own? Why, when I steered our conversation away from protesters and KKK orators and so forth, and back toward, say, writers who cop a nonviolent attitude yet nonetheless ask a question now and then about killing the president, did Floyd say, "Are you really asking if you would be in trouble?"

I submit that Floyd behaved this way because he is a man who understands the law and believes in it. I submit that Floyd is unafraid. I submit that Floyd would have leapt to my aid had I managed to present him with a decent challenge, which someday I may. I submit that if Floyd is a peruser of what now passes for political discourse in this country he must be nearly as bored as I am. What I have written thus far is, of course, no crime at all. These words are a reference to crime, and specifically to a crime I do not personally think has any business being a crime in the first place, but they do not yet, in and of themselves, violate the statute under which, to review, it is deemed illegal to write that one (I) would like very much to take the president's throat in one's (my) hands and, with the force of opposable thumb on privileged windpipe, work the life out of it.

According to the case law, and as Floyd helpfully affirmed, a threat against the president must be a true threat in order to be judged a true crime. That is, the renderer of the vile language must give sufficient indication to any "reasonable person" who encounters it {2} that the renderer hopes earnestly to realize in the physical realm, just once, what he can experience again and again, with no harm to any of God's creatures, in the infinitely expansive realm of words. Given such a choice, only a person as unimaginative as George W Bush would opt for the lump-sum payment.

{2} Reader, is this honestly you?

I will not. I sincerely mean none of the violence contained in my paragraphs to be translated into those abhorrent expressions of hatred that pertain in the world beyond the page, and as long as that holds true I have neither committed an offense nor allowed the threat of unjust law to create a policeman of my own thoughts where once stood, or sat, a citizen.

As long as I (that is, the corporeal, arrestable "I") wish no real damage upon the president, I (the other "I") should theoretically be free even to enhance the scenario at hand for the enjoyment of my public. In place of the initial question I might ask instead, "Am I allowed to write that I would like to kidnap George W Bush and fly him to a prison in some faraway land where his 'rights' are no longer an issue, there to put a bag over his head and make him stand for hours on one leg while I defecate on his New Testament before chaining his arms to the ceiling until he dies of a heart attack, after which I will claim that he never existed?" Here, though, taste, if not simple human decency, again rears its delicate head: I doubt that I could bring myself to read such a thing, let alone write it.


All the same, the answer to the question posed at the start of this essay is no. I am not allowed to write that I would like to hunt down George W Bush and kill him with my bare hands. Floyd gave me to understand that the "true threat" idea would help me out if I did, as would the First Amendment, which still has some strength left in it despite its wasting disease, but that any outright declaration of violent intent could, and perhaps even would, be considered a violation of the law. He also urged me to keep things "satirical", as that was going to be my defense "later on".

Satire, I fear, may be too ambitious for my craft, but anyone who has listened to our current president knows at least how to tell a bald-faced lie:

I would like to hunt down George W Bush, the president of the United States, and kill him with my bare hands.

Bill Totten


  • On Simple Human Decency, I would think if Human Decency existed there would not be people like Bush in power.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:41 AM, June 10, 2006  

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