OPINION: Democracy in dangerous times

The first person I thought of when I read about the attack on Paul Pelosi last week was Alberta W. King, the mother of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Although King’s assassination was a watershed event in American history, many forget that his mother was murdered six years after him, shot while she played the organ inside the sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

A New York Times report from that day said that when King’s father, Martin Luther King, Sr., asked the assailant why he had targeted his wife, he said simply that she was “one of the enemy.”

Looking back on the 2022 campaign season, it seems like “one of the enemy” is what we’ve all become to each other, which is another incredibly dangerous place for our politics to be.

Behind the scenes of the balloons and bunting at campaign rallies this year, the peril to the top-tier candidates, no matter their party, is real. Although I expected security to be a concern for public officials after Jan. 6, I was astounded when one Georgia campaign manager told me this summer they were spending most of their time “keeping my candidate from being assassinated.”

Specifics aren’t discussed by individual campaigns for obvious reasons. But subtle changes to the way public events unfold now are obvious. Bodyguards are visible. Addresses are sent upon request.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene travels in a specially detailed black SUV, outfitted to protect her while she drives through her 14th Congressional District.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock has spent more than $900,000 on security measures from his own campaign funds — a move that’s allowed by law and required by reality, since the U.S. Capitol Police don’t have the manpower to protect every member or address every threat — almost 10,000 last year alone.

The situation is light years away from my days as a Senate staffer when the only reason to have security on hand was for parking enforcement or traffic control, but not much else.

Charles Bullock, the longtime professor of politics at the University of Georgia, told me that he thinks the American political environment today is more perilous than it’s ever been, including during the Civil Rights era.

“I think the difference between now and 60 years ago is that there is a wider range of targets,” from poll workers to elected officials, Bullock said. “And those who are taking aim at those targets often have a degree of legitimacy or respectability.”

He pointed to social media’s ability to amplify statements like the 2020 Facebook video in which Greene said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is guilty of treason, “a crime punishable by death.” That kind of rhetoric has not only been tolerated but rewarded.

“Even the most ardent segregationist public officials weren’t calling for the murder of Martin Luther King,” Bullock said.

But for every threat that Greene might make against someone else, she’s getting the same in return. She has detailed the “swatting” she’s been subjected to on multiple occasions. That’s when an anonymous caller phoned local police to report a murder at her home, prompting police to arrive, weapons at the ready.

Most candidates don’t want to acknowledge the danger around them. Some don’t want to draw more attention to the situation. Others feel like they knew what they were signing up for when they ran for office.

But the attack on Paul Pelosi, the Speaker’s husband, has shaken many.

Dekalb County CEO Michael Thurmond called the Pelosi attack “appalling” and said, “I believe I speak for other officials when I say your greatest concern is for your family.”

While many elected leaders, including Thurmond, have security details now, families are typically on their own, as Paul Pelosi was. “You have people who make no distinction between threatening you and threatening your family and you just don’t know who will carry it out,” Thurmond said.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s wife, Tricia, got too many threats to count in the aftermath of the 2020 elections. When I went to interview the Raffenspergers in person at the time, I could only get an address over the phone instead of email, so deep was the worry that their location would be intercepted.

A startling amount of the danger to the Raffenspergers and others came from inaccurate online conspiracies, pushed by political enemies or quacks.

Thurmond said he thinks the increasingly incendiary rhetoric is the root of the violence. “People will attack your reputation and your credibility — those are a prelude,” he said. “Pelosi has been targeted for years if not decades — the vilification fuels this type of behavior.”

Threats to both members of Congress and the Georgia General Assembly have increased significantly since 2016, officials told me.

The U.S. Capitol Police put out a call to tone down the rhetoric that they said is inflaming so much of today’s tension, for voters and candidates.

The way out of at least some of this chaos is leadership. Voters choosing people who possess it, and officials stepping up to display it.

Herschel Walker has begun warning his crowds that U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock isn’t just a Democrat, he’s also a Marxist who wants to get rid of the police, the court system and the family unit. (He doesn’t.)

When Kanye West posted Walker’s picture with a “pro-life” message to Instagram, Walker didn’t respond to the apparent endorsement, even though West had recently gone on multiple anti-Semitic rants.

Walker leaving those rants unaddressed tells someone somewhere it’s ok to believe it and repeat them.

The same goes for the day a would-be assassin showed up in Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s neighborhood to kill him and too few Democrats spoke out to condemn it.

The responsibility is on voters, too. With Election Day almost here, vilifying candidates or friends on social media for their politics is the beginning of a road that’s leading us to tragedy. Disagreement is healthy, but demonization is a cancer.

When Mrs. King was killed in Atlanta all those years ago, President Richard Nixon called it “a tragic and senseless act.” What would people say today?

At some point it will be asking too much of candidates and elected officials to choose to put themselves and their families at this kind of risk.

Eventually, only the craziest and most craven will stick around for this kind of abuse. And in the meantime, some may fall prey to it in the end.