The Southern Poverty Law Center, a law firm that fought the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s and has become the most respected monitor of US rightwing extremism, recently brought out a report called Terror From the Right.
This identifies, chronologically, the serious home-grown plots, conspiracies and racist rampages cooked up in the US since the Oklahoma City bomb in 1995. The list runs to 10 pages of closely printed type and itemises 75 domestic terrorism events.
Each of the incidents aimed to change the political face of America through violence, courtesy of groups with such titles as Aryan People’s Republic, The New Order and The Hated. But in the summer of 2008 the chronology changes tack. Entries, running at one or two per year, come faster. Instead of a variety of targets, one name crops up: Barack Obama.
Obama was elected in a wave of adulation, but there has been a largely unseen layer of antagonism towards him that lies well beyond the boundaries of reasonable political debate.
On May 2, 2007, fully 18 months before election day, he was assigned a secret service detail — much earlier than any other presidential candidate. The precise reasons for the move have never been disclosed. A senior US official in the State Department said that before he decided to run for the presidency, Obama had actively to win Michelle over to the idea by assuaging her fears about the potential of an attack on their family.
But as the Southern Poverty Law Center survey shows, the issue of safety and the 44th president remains anything but a laughing matter. “Virtually every domestic terrorist event we have identified since June 2008 — when it became obvious that Obama was going to win — has been directly related to him,” says report author Mark Potok.
Apart from the Obamas themselves, the burden of such a threat falls primarily on the shoulders of the US Secret Service.
As Joseph Petro, global security head for Citigroup and a 23-year veteran of the Secret Service, puts it, the challenges facing the service today are unlike any period that has gone before. On top of all the usual risks associated with the world’s most powerful politician, there is now the added ingredient of his race. “As the first black president he creates a whole other set of issues for the Secret Service to deal with,” he says.
Petro, who served as Ronald Reagan’s bodyguard, has a formula for measuring the potential dangers for any particular incumbent of the White House. You take the general atmosphere of the times in which they are in office and combine it with the specific personality that the president brings to the job. In both regards, he says, Obama presents a huge task.
“In Obama, we have a president with a very unique personality who likes to be out with the people. Put that together with the political atmosphere of these times that is highly partisan and vitriolic, then include race, and we’ve got a big challenge. There’s no margin for error.”
Petro’s point about the role the president’s personality plays in his own safety is ably illustrated by the single most disastrous failure in Secret Service history — the event every incoming trainee agent spends hours and hours studying — the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
In the last analysis, a president can only be as safe as he allows himself to be. Agents can advise the commander-in-chief what is best for his security, but they cannot give him orders.
During his presidential campaign, Obama would regularly mingle among crowds of astonishing size. But since his inauguration he has responded to the guidance of his protecting agents, detaching himself considerably from direct public engagement and only appearing at indoor engagements.
Technology plays a major role. Petro recalls asking a grumbling Reagan on several occasions to wear a bulletproof vest. Since then a whole new array of gadgetry has been added to the service’s armoury, from face-recognition technology to a new generation of armoured vehicles. Obama rides in a Cadillac with military grade eight-inch thick doors.
In the last analysis, the human factor remains supreme, as was illustrated last November when two reality show hopefuls gatecrashed a White House function, penetrating the inner core of the building and shaking Obama’s hand. But in the mindset of the mortified Secret Service that didn’t matter; they could have done.
Being a US president is a high-risk enterprise — 10 per cent have been felled by an assassin. In the overall assessment of risk to Obama, the most attention is settling on rightwing extremist groups inside the US.
The SPLC’s latest report records an astonishing mushrooming in extremist anti-government Patriot groups who see the Obama administration as a plot to impose “one-world government” on liberty-loving Americans. The numbers leapt from 149 groups in 2008 to 512 groups in 2009, of which 127 were classed as paramilitary groups.
Montana is one of the states where resurgent extreme rightwing activity can be detected. Travis McAdam tracks such activity on behalf of the Montana Human Rights Network. “The hatred that’s there is very real. It’s more than a gut-level hatred of having an African-American as president, it’s also ideological – these people see black people as sub-human. Groups are using Obama to recruit new members.”
White supremacist forums are abuzz with anti-Obama rhetoric. In one, a correspondent writes: “if we want to see the overthrow or the cleansing of society then we should support Obama being where he is! I believe in the coming war. With this Nig as President he will just speed up the process.” Another says: “I never thought I’d ever see the day when a monkey ran my country & I’m 34. I weep for our children.”
McAdam likes to think of it as a funnel, at the top of which are many people drawn to radical right groups for all sorts of reasons — gun rights, taxation, Obama. Most never go further than that level, but some do.
“As they dig into the subject, going down into the funnel, they start to lose connection with the social networks around them that keep them tied to normality. Eventually out the other end of the funnel emerges the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh.’”
Potok says the white supremacists who are out to get the president should not be underestimated, “These groups aren’t Al Qaeda. Most of them look vastly more bumbling than effective. It only takes one to get through. Timothy McVeigh taught us that.”