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Willie Horton Redux

An attack ad targeting Barack Obama raises a question: Can anyone with doubts about capital punishment, especially a black guy, become president?

| Thu May 1, 2008 2:00 AM EDT
To become president of the United States, you've got to be willing to kill black men. That's been the consensus in American politics over the last quarter-century, ever since support for the death penalty became seen as a litmus test for electability to the White House. The issue of capital punishment is inextricable from issues of race, both because most of those executed are African American men, and because the issue carries an encoded discourse about white fear of black crime. With an African American man for the first time within striking distance of the Oval Office, it was inevitable that the issue would rear its head—and so it has, in an attack ad that's being referred to as "Obama's Willie Horton."

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In the new ad released by a group calling itself the National Campaign Fund, the camera pans over ravaged, graffiti-ridden urban streets as a voice-over names three victims killed by gang violence in Chicago. Then comes punch line: "That same year, a Chicago state senator named Barack Obama voted against expanding the death penalty for gang-related murders." And finally, the knockout blow: "So the question is, can a man so weak in the war on gangs be trusted in the war on terror?"

That last line operates on any number of levels. To start with, it calls up the familiar, grotesque claim that any reluctance toward allowing the state to strap a human being to a gurney and pump poison into his arm is somehow a sign of "weakness." Then it takes an absurd leap, arguing that such "weakness" translates into an inability to defend the country against terrorists. But there's something else going on, as well, as the camera traverses those burned-out streets. The implied threat is that the black criminals lurking there are just waiting to stream out of the ghettos and get "us" (i.e. white people), just as the Islamic jihadists are waiting to stream over the borders and blow us up. If our only defense against such threats is to be "tough" on these people—to kill the worst ones and jail the rest—is Barack Hussein Obama really the man for the job? Won't he be too soft on his homeboys—and maybe even on people who share the same religion as his father's side of the family, as well? (Needless to say, to be president of the United States in the 21st century, you have to be willing to kill Muslims, too.)

It takes a man possessed of a kind of vile genius to do so much damage in so few words, and that man is Floyd Brown, the conservative activist and Republican strategist with a long and storied history of sleazy media tactics. Brown is best known for the 1988 ad attacking Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts, during his run against George H.W. Bush. While Bush, the ad said, supported capital punishment, Dukakis "not only opposes the death penalty," but presided over a Massachusetts prison furlough program that gave weekend passes to inmates, including convicted killer Willie Horton. As a photo of Horton—a large, bearded black man—loomed on the screen, a voice-over described the rape and stabbing he committed after absconding while on furlough. The message to white voters was clear: While George Bush will do away with men like this, Michael Dukakis will let them loose to kill, rape, and pillage.

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