When I first met Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, I thought he was –well—a little weird about security. He didn’t want to sleep in a hotel without a night guard. He took pains about who knew where he was, when. And via cell phone he monitored the threats that came in on his email with a vigilance that mirrored the intensity of his work.
Today, I don’t find Mikey’s combat zone mentality so strange. Haunting, but not eccentric. According to commentator Sara Robinson, since Obama was elected at least 20 people have been killed by right wing extremists in this country—the kind of extremists who hate Mikey and the work he does.
Mikey is a Republican, a former Reagan administration White House attorney, and an Honor Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. You might think that would quiet the Patriot crowd. But since 2006 he has been an unflinching advocate for religious minorities and nontheists in the U.S. military. He receives daily emails and phone calls from U.S. sailors, soldiers, marines, airmen, service academy cadets and midshipmen and veterans who are being subjected to fundamentalist Christian rituals and conversion pressures. Perhaps ironically, most of the complaints come from open, inquiring mainline Christians and Catholics who are offended by aggressive proselytizing, the insistence that Jesus was a human sacrifice, and the notion that the Bible is the literally perfect word of God. But other complaints come in from atheists, pantheists, pagans, Jews (of which Mikey is one) or Muslims. The MRFF defends them all with equal vigor, making private and public demands for change, threatening and filing lawsuits, and taking their battles to the airwaves.
This work has made Mikey a public figure (Harper’s Magazine calls him the “Constitutional conscience of the U.S. military”) and put him and the three-time Nobel Peace Prize-nominated MRFF in the sights of people who are blunt about their desire to see Mikey dead:
[Atheist litigant] Jeremy Hall is a risk. He and his lawyer should be exterminated.
My money’s on we gas you fucks first, and this time get it right. Cheers!
You f***ing piece of shit jew and your stinking jew woman and inbred jew children and jew loving traitor daughterinlaw deserve to torture die you filth jew liberal America hating Jesus hating basterd
Those FEMA camps are going to be used. The problem for you is that instead of commies being the guards they are going to be Christians.
Ultimately good and love will win out over evil and hate. See you in the streets.
Even putting anti-Semitism aside in its own box, words like these are becoming increasingly commonplace in the mailboxes of American public figures, a fringe manifestation of the trend toward violent imagery and words in civil –or perhaps I should say uncivil– discourse. Following the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, two Arizona Republicans resigned their positions. They had received threats from Tea Party activists, and the horrific deaths in Tucson made their own sense of vulnerability unacceptable. Said one, “I love the Republican party, but don’t want to take a bullet for anyone.”
Angry, unhinged people have always been among us. Why the recent flood of threats and dehumanizing invective? Economic anxieties may be a factor. Hopeless people look for scapegoats. The anonymity of the internet may be another. Like road rage, internet rage gets expressed without eye contact.
Another likely factor is the recent growth in threat talk as an entertainment medium. In July, shooter Byron Williams exchanged an estimated 150 rounds of ammunition with the California Highway Patrol before being subdued. His targets were the left leaning Tides Foundation and ACLU where he hoped to trigger a revolution with a bloodbath. Tides had been repeatedly called out in Beck’s shows as part of a socialist conspiracy. After his arrest, Williams said that Fox News host Glenn Beck “blew my mind” with “the things he exposed.” “Beck would never say anything about a conspiracy, would never advocate violence, he’ll never do anything like, of this nature, but he’ll give you every ounce of evidence that you could possibly need.”
In the wake of the Tucson massacre, the media has been flooded with discussion about the narrative sea of violent rhetoric in which we all swim. Beck, though not directly implicated in denigrating Giffords, has involuntarily lent his name to the talk media genre he refined and perfected:
For Mikey Weinstein, the worst becking has come, ironically, from a member of the clergy. In 2009, Weinstein and his wife Bonnie filed suit against Jim Ammerman, president of the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches, an organization that endorses chaplains to the Department of Defense, and one of his chaplains, Gordon Klingenschmitt . According to an affidavit filed by the MRFF, Ammerman, like Beck, is a prodigious conspiracy theorist. In his world view, foreign armies are lying low throughout our country with the approval of our traitorous government, and a cabal of wealthy families secretly rule the world. He has called for the hanging of President Obama and Vice President Biden, but his advocacy of violence is usually more subtle. Weinstein and his wife, Bonnie, filed suit because Klingenschmitt used the medium of “imprecatory prayer” as a means of becking. Imprecatory prayer calls down God’s disfavor on a person. It is essentially a curse. Here is one of Klingenschmitt’s prayers.
One-Minute Prayer: Let us pray. Almighty God, today we pray imprecatory prayers from Psalm 109 against the enemies of religious liberty, including Barry Lynn and Mikey Weinstein, who issued press releases this week attacking me personally. God, do not remain silent, for wicked men surround us and tell lies about us. We bless them, but they curse us. Therefore find them guilty, not me. Let their days be few, and replace them with Godly people. Plunder their fields, and seize their assets. Cut off their descendants, and remember their sins, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
(Lest anyone think that these words are actually directed at a heavenly rather than human audience, one of Klingenschmitt’s imprecatory prayers toward another enemy includes the “cowardly bureaucrat’s” phone number.)
Words like these create a mind state of never ending fear in the minds of those targeted—a fear that can range from acute terror at an unexpected noise to a dull nagging anxiety that never goes away. Says Weinstein, “We live in a constant state of ‘Red Alert’. We rely on our security team, our weapons and our attack-trained German Shepherds. Most friends and family don’t even remotely understand nor want to. Every car that drives by, every person who walks by, every leaf that blows across your driveway is carefully scrutinized as a potential threat. In the world of the Weinsteins and MRFF there are absolutely no ‘coincidences’. Everything is swiftly evaluated as a potential security matter.”
The phenomenon of becking has been described elsewhere as a form of “stochastic terrorism” or as Mikey calls it, trolling for assassins:
Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable. . . . The person who actually plants the bomb or assassinates the public official is not the stochastic terrorist, they are the “missile” set in motion by the stochastic terrorist. The stochastic terrorist is the person who uses mass media as their means of setting those “missiles” in motion.
Here’s the mechanism spelled out concisely:
The stochastic terrorist is the person who uses mass media to broadcast memes that incite unstable people to commit violent acts.
One or more unstable people responds to the incitement by becoming a lone wolf and committing a violent act.
Sara Robins draws an analogy to cigarette smoking. We don’t know who will get cancer from the smoke – even though we can be confident that the death rate goes up the more people smoke. Similarly, an advertiser has no idea which viewers will buy their product – yet corporations spend millions, confident that ad campaigns will pay for themselves. As Gabby Giffords said so well, words and images have consequences. She had no way of knowing who the shooter would be, or when violence would strike, or that she herself would be among the victims.
Gabrielle Giffords and her constituents were tragically vulnerable because they were civilians, living like we all want to live, as civilians in peacetime. They were gathered outside a grocery store, and Giffords tweeted her accessibility to her district. Mikey Weinstein may well have escaped their fate because he was trained for combat, and the first threats he received activated a soldier’s survival instincts. He reacts to threat by going on the offensive:
“They’ve shot out the windows of our house, they’ve slaughtered animals and put them on our front porch and they’ve marked swastikas and crucifixes on our house. They burned down a church where I was about to speak. They go on about all the horrible things they are going to do to us. Screw them. They can take a number, pack a picnic lunch and stand in line. We aren’t going anywhere and we’re not ever going to stop being rapacious civil rights fighters for those who are not allowed to have a voice of dissent in the face of horrifying religious oppression.”
But is that what we Americans want—to have public figures act like soldiers? Elected officials and nonprofit employees can and must take controversial positions. Do we want to limit public service to those who are prepared to treat every crowd as if it may contain a human missile? Should the wife of a Legislative District chairman or a nonprofit advocate have to wonder when the front window is going to shatter? Or is it time for the corporate media and the listening public to say: Enough. We refuse to transmit and receive dehumanizing rhetoric – no matter how entertaining or self-satisfying or profitable it may be.
I think we can do better, and I would like to echo the words of President Obama to the people of Tucson after their tragedy:
If, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud. It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.
. . . We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.