How Justin Raimondo Made Me a Braver Writer
WASHINGTON — Justin Raimondo—author, activist and consummate critic of the U.S. war machine–passed away at the age of 67 on Thursday. While many of you might know him as the co-founder and prolific columnist at Antiwar.com, he was once branded a “unpatriotic conservative” at the start of the Iraq War, and a potential “threat to national security” a year later.
For Raimondo, being called names while in the service of trying to end U.S. wars of choice was like rocket fuel. Particularly when neoconservative David Frum launched his “unpatriotic” broadside at National Review on March 24, 2003, five days after the U.S. launched what would be the most disastrous invasion of another country since Vietnam. Being accused of “appeasing the enemy” could only mean they were getting under the warmongers’ skin at a time when the rest of Washington was mobilized like lemmings for battle.
“He loved it,” said Eric Garris, who co-founded Antiwar.com with Raimondo. Garris was his close friend and co-conspirator in dozens of political and anti-war campaigns from 1976 until his death yesterday. “Justin loved to be attacked—he viewed it usually as a badge of honor.”
Word of Raimondo’s death didn’t quite come as a surprise to people who had been following him online—they knew he had been battling cancer for two years, and his volatile presence on Twitter had dropped off to an occasional flash, then nothing, for the last few months. His penultimate column on May 3 was classic Raimondo, blasting John Bolton for saber rattling for U.S. intervention in Venezuela, and entitled “Will the Real Moron Stand Up?”
For writers who were skeptical of U.S. national security policy after 9/11—especially those on the Right end of the spectrum, whether they be libertarians or conservatives—there were few outlets, at least with a substantial audience, to publish. Antiwar.com, which had been around since 1995, became a hub for Left and Right critics. Justin, though, provided the juice. His willingness to mix it up, to say what needed to be said, in unvarnished, funny, often un-politically correct language (in any given column he would be calling officials and media “shrieking monkeys,” “whores,” “harpies”) was for many both a motivator and a balm at a time when it seemed like every column one wrote against the status quo was one step closer to career-ending purgatory.
“We were really very much in the wilderness,” Garris recalled to me this morning. But Raimondo surged—doing stints on Fox News, MSNBC, even CNN at the time. He wrote quite a bit for TAC too, from its inception through 2016. “He had the ability to reach people and/or piss them off so much. He was such a powerful force.”
This is where I come in. Having begun writing for TAC in 2007 I was happy when Garris reached out in 2009 to see if I wanted to do some regular columns for Antiwar.com. As one of those “misfits among misfits,” I can say that my decision to do so was both therapeutic (what better venue to rage against the machine?) and a most fulfilling stage in my career as a journalist. Some of us might recall the atmosphere in Washington during those times: stiflingly conformist and relentlessly punitive towards those who did not toe the line. Surrounded by brave iconoclasts and B.S.-beaters like Phil Giraldi, Jeff Huber and Raimondo charged my courage and batteries as a writer. Justin was especially supportive, and though there were things he would say that I would never have the guts to (I tried to flex more on the reporting side, and less on the polemics), he seemed to appreciate having me as a junior member of the suicide squad.
There was a moment I was put to the test. I was in the middle of my daughter’s Girls Scout meeting in 2013 when I got a call from Garris. I stepped out in the hall. Would I please write a piece on Antiwar.com suing the FBI for secretly investigating Antiwar.com in the early days of the war, in part because of some of the things Justin had written and said? My mind reeled. Would bringing attention to this bring further heat on the website? Would it bring heat on me?
I read the FBI memo at the center of their planned lawsuit and agreed to write it. Frankly, I knew in my heart I wouldn’t be worth my salt as a journalist if I went wobbly on this. The government had opened secret files on Garris and Raimondo, and at one point the FBI agent writing the April 30, 2004 memo on Antiwar.com recommended further monitoring of the website in the form of a “preliminary investigation …to determine if [redaction] are engaging in, or have engaged in, activities which constitute a threat to national security.”
Why? You can read in detail here, but much of it was because of Antiwar.com’s mission to criticize U.S. war policies, its linking to government watch lists at the time, and Justin’s writing, particularly on five Israelis who were detained by the FBI in New Jersey after they were spotted by witnesses on a rooftop celebrating and taking pictures in sight of the burning NYC towers on 9/11 and later deported.
The ACLU had taken up their case, rightly, as an example of the government’s hostile attitude against the 1st Amendment. The government had taken advantage of its new 9/11 authorities and the country’s war-time footing to spy and harass dissidents just like the old days. Garris and Raimondo won, but their efforts to have all of the government records expunged is still tied up in appeals. Garris said Justin was at least able to see the latest June 12 hearing in the Ninth Circuit.
“He saw the hearing and he got to see that what he was doing was … worth something,” Garris said, audibly choking back tears. When they met, Raimondo was a libertarian gay rights activist. Later on they would help convince Buchanan to run for president in 1992 and Raimondo led his campaign office in San Francisco (Garris said Buchanan had sent a touching note about Justin’s death this morning). When gay protesters had surrounded and “assaulted” the San Francisco headquarters at the time, Garris recalled, Raimondo ran out loaded for bear. “He gave them the what-for,” he said, laughing.
That was the image many of us are conjuring today. Raimondo the fighter. Raimondo the brave. Of course not everyone agreed with him. His enemies over the years have tarred him as a racist and anti-semite. On the other hand, he easily came to blows with his friends over a point of view or a passage in a column–a tweet even. His bridge-burning with colleagues and fellow travelers was notorious. “He was very vocal and contentious person who people either hated or loved or both,” Garris told me. “I’ve gotten a lot of emails and comments today about him that said, you know I hated him but he was a hero.”
But in the end, after 68 years of being a rebel and contrarian, he was forced to sheath the sword. He was just too sick. “He just fought and fought, to keep going to get the words out,” Garris said. He last saw him on Saturday. They knew it would be the last time.
“I am going to miss him so much. My life would have been completely different if I hadn’t met him.”
I know I feel that way, and millions of readers and fans (and foes) do too. RIP.