Election 2004

Bullies Ascendent

Four years of George Bush have meant the triumph of the bully – from abusers in Iraq to intimidators at the polls.
Bully – n, blustering browbeating person, esp. one habitually cruel to others who are weaker; ... vb: to treat abusively. – Webster's Dictionary

Thanks to satellite television, even pygmies in the Central African bush are familiar with the bullying ways of George W. Bush and his men. The swagger, the smirk, and the Abu Ghraibsters' photos are logo enough for Islamist recruiters. Europeans fear and revile us for the same reasons, while in China, they simply stay out of our way.

Americans know that Bush's international bullying has diminished our reputation in the world as a nation of law and reason. Some Americans – Bush's xenophobic base – love exactly that about him.

Iraqis are the poster victims of Bush's bullies. The war has killed at least 100,000 civilians, according to Johns Hopkins researchers. What no one talks about is how the Bush bullies have affected us here at home, so that we, as a society, have grown accustomed to menace and threat as replacements for debate and persuasion. Quotidian bullying could be this president's true and lasting legacy – beyond debt and war – to America.

The "yuppie riot" organized out of Texas bully Tom DeLay's office during the 2000 vote count in Miami set the tone. Those buttoned-down brown-shirts, the Bush-Jugend if you will, have not regrouped for public displays of force since. They haven't needed to. The president himself, by example, has emboldened natural bullies and made new bullies across the nation.

Here at home, we have watched the Bush bullies kicking the already down, again and again – with the gay marriage amendment, the cash grabs for the already rich, the silencing of dissent by the Patriot Act, the immigrant roundups, and the complete and utter absence of concern for improving health care.

The triumph of the bully is especially noticeable as the election draws near.

RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie recently sent a letter to Rock the Vote in Washington, accusing the organization of "malicious political deception" for sending sample draft cards via e-mail to educate their 600,000 e-mail members about the draft. In his letter to the organization, Gillespie wrote: "As a non-profit organization that enjoys the benefits of being formed under 501 (c )(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, you have an obligation to immediately cease and desist from promoting or conducting your 'Draft' campaign."

In the current climate, an overt written threat by a governing party official to revoke non-profit status is hardly worthy of press attention. This is a year when pepper spray fired from paintball guns onto small-town children barely gets ink.

President Bush's visit last week to Jacksonville, Ore., a tiny mountain town of fewer than 3,000 souls, was heralded by the usual black helicopters bristling with guns. When peaceful protesters lined the main street hoping the President might glance at their signs from his bulletproof limo, they were shot at with paintball guns firing pepper spray.

CNN the next morning gave a few chipper, upbeat seconds to the abuse. Transcript: "Well, good morning, Heidi," Suzanne Malveaux said. "Of course, as the campaign heats up, so do those protests, as well. It was last night in Jacksonville, Ore., is where there was a group of protesters blocking the street along the motorcade route. And a group of local police hit them with pepper. This is fire from paintball guns. A couple of people were arrested during that scuffle. But for the most part, things were rather peaceful.

"There were also a lot of Bush supporters that were along that route. And for the most part, President Bush, of course, projecting optimism along the campaign trail."

Of course, Suzanne.

In fact, Jacksonville residents reported after the attacks that even small children were sprayed, and innocent bystanders shot in the back at point blank for helping the fallen.

The bullying of protestors has been common throughout this campaign season, in small towns and big cities. Under the guise of rooting out terrorists, the Bush security forces have arrested protestors within a wide perimeter around the president, and for the least offensive reasons.

Protestors at Bush campaign venues are routinely asked to remove signs, cover themselves and generally take their expressions of protest away from the President's line of sight or hearing.pHecklers who manage to sneak into his loyalty-tested appearances are arrested.

In Charleston, W. Va., near a presidential appearance earlier this year, a couple was wearing shirts that included a photo of the president and the word "Bush," under the international "no" symbol.

When they refused a request from armed men to cover their shirts, they were arrested, handcuffed and jailed for trespassing. The charges later were dropped and Charleston city officials apologized, saying the arrests were made at the behest of the Secret Service.

They don't stop at intimidating protestors; actual voters are fair game too. Salon has reported that during the last two decades, various arms of the Republican Party, or groups working for Republican candidates, all over the country have organized off-duty cops to patrol heavily minority precincts, put up threatening signs, and mailed out bogus "bulletins" warning of the consequences of voter fraud.

There is no reason to think that on this critical election day, these same bullies won't be out in full force practicing the tin-pot dictator's voter intimidation skills they've been refining for 20 years.

In an interview this week, Democratic Party lawyer David Boies told me that one of his greatest fears for election day in Florida is that "security" forces of one stripe or another will again set up roadblocks in minority counties to suppress the black vote, as they did in 2000. Because the presidential election cannot be re-voted, the incentive for outrageous strong-arm tactics on election day will be very high, Boies said.

Ad hoc pro-Bush bullying is even more frightening than the organized stuff. In Crawford, Texas, college interns – not just paid staff – at the local paper have received death threats since the editors of the Lone Star Iconoclast endorsed Kerry instead of the hometown favorite.

The bullies who have gained the most under the Bush regime are the former soldiers now styled as "security contractors." Twenty-thousand of them are right now bullying poor Iraqis for hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars per day, their "cost-plus" contracts unchecked by disinterested audits.

WVC3 Group, Blackwater and dozens of other spook-named outfits are retirement havens for bullies who miss the action. Staffed by ex-military pros in their 30s, 40s and 50s who never lost the taste for hunting human prey with night vision goggles on, they now have a whole country full of cowering pups to kick around. And they get paid three or four times more for it than if they were actually serving in the U.S. armed forces.

These mercenaries know who ultimately tosses them red meat, and while they nominally serve in America's war on terror, they will pitch in for the bully-in-chief here at home. One of them, Carlton Sherwood, an employee of the WVC3 Group, "an anti-terrorism firm" based in Reston, Va., produced the notorious anti-Kerry screed that Sinclair Broadcasting recently shoved at its hapless midsize-market TV consumers.

Yet even these bullies are bullied.

The News & Observer of Raleigh recently reported that contractors wanting to work for Blackwater in Iraq must sign contracts that compel them to pay Blackwater a quarter of a million dollars in instant damages if they reveal details of the contracts or work.

Not once has our president distanced himself from any of these tactics, never once called his bullies to heel. With his smirk and silence, he has encouraged and emboldened them.

To the rest of the planet, America is the bully on the block. Living on the inside with the bullies has damaged us in ways I leave it to the sociologists and psychologists to describe. Tuesday night will tell whether the majority of Americans want to shed the label and expel the bullies, or remain behind the line and watch them kick whomever else they find on the ground.
Nina Burleigh has written for The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and New York magazine. Her book "The Stranger and the Statesman," a history of the Smithsonian Museum and its founder, will be published in paperback by Morrow this October. She's currently writing on a book about the French scientists who founded Egyptology.
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