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The Cost of Sanctimony

Bill Keller of the NYT calls hate crimes laws a “costly form of sanctimony.” Excerpt from his essay: The shooting of Trayvon Martin has become a cause before it is even a case. It’s natural to admire the resolute grace of his grieving parents and to endorse their demand for answers Florida authorities have been […]

Bill Keller of the NYT calls hate crimes laws a “costly form of sanctimony.” Excerpt from his essay:

The shooting of Trayvon Martin has become a cause before it is even a case. It’s natural to admire the resolute grace of his grieving parents and to endorse their demand for answers Florida authorities have been slow to provide. It’s commendable to shine the lamp of shame on Florida’s absurdly permissive gun laws. (This, remember, is the state that tried last year to make it a crime for doctors to talk to patients about the dangers of guns in the home.) But fashioning a narrative from the hate-crimes textbook — bellowing analogies to the racist nightmares of Birmingham and Selma, as the reliably rabble-rousing Reverend Sharpton has done — is just political opportunism. This is the kind of demagoguery that could prejudice a prosecution, or mobilize a mob. Is it not creepy, by the way, that Spike Lee was tweeting the suspected home address of George Zimmerman? As if to say, “Go get him!” (Lee sent apologies and a check to the elderly couple who were scared from their home because, oops, the tweet gave the wrong address. But apparently it’s O.K. to terrorize Zimmerman.)

A friend of mine and I were talking over the weekend about the Martin case. Like me, he thinks an outside investigation into how this case was handled is warranted. Like me, he’s upset over the bonfire of racialist outraged stoked by Sharpton and his ilk. “Zimmerman is toast,” my friend said. “Even if he’s not guilty, he will have to spend every day for the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.”

I did too, for about a week, thanks in large part to Sharpton, who is a wicked, wicked man. In the summer of 2001, I wrote an ill-advised column for the New York Post about the death of the pop star Aaliyah. My editors at the paper asked me if I agreed with them that the big public funeral they were having, including closing off a big stretch of Park Avenue, if memory serves, was over the top for a young singer. I did agree. They asked me to write a column about it. I did, and used the Aaliyah excesses as a jumping off point to talk about how, in my view, we overvalued celebrity deaths (I mentioned, for example, the hysteria over Rudolph Valentino’s funeral), and didn’t pay enough attention to the deaths of men and women who had accomplished a lot of real good in life. I still believe that basic point, but it was mean to have brought Aaliyah into it. It was an insensitive column, and I regret having written it.

Anyway, the switchboard at the Post literally shut down for all the angry calls, stoked by black radio DJs that morning. I had 210 voice mail messages waiting for me when I got to the office. They were almost all full of profanity, and a surprise amount of anti-Semitism, including threats about what the callers, all of whom had black accents, were going to do to my Jew ass. There were several death threats, including a chilling one from a male caller who said something along the lines of, “We know what you look like, and we know where you work. We are going to be waiting for you. You will not see us coming. We are going to cut your throat.”

Well, of course they knew what I looked like. My picture ran with my column. And of course they knew where the newspaper’s office was. The paper had to beef up security outside the building. Sharpton, of course, got involved, and started pumping the thing up on his radio show and elsewhere. Coming to and from work on the subway over the next couple of days, I kept my head down. Every time a black man got within 10 feet of me, I thought, “Could this be one of the people who made the death threat?” My editors suggested that I take some time off and stay at home. I stayed in my apartment for a week, not going anywhere, hoping and praying that nobody would find out where I lived and come harm me or my family. I listened to Al Sharpton denounce me on his radio broadcast, and announce his intention to escalate the campaign against me and the paper. On local cable access on night, I watched a young black man speaking to a mob inside a club, or so it looked like, telling them that he had called Rod Dreher on the phone to talk to him, and Rod Dreher said  that black people could go screw themselves, or something along those lines. Completely invented. The crowd went wild with anger. The man ended up by leading them in a chant of “Kill Giuliani!”

Recounting this for you now, I think that this must sound so over the top that it must be an invention. I assure you it was not. The left-liberal commentator Katha Pollitt, while calling my column cruel (a fair judgment, actually), snarked in her Nation column at the time, “I can’t think of a more important issue than celebrity funerals for a self-described national black leader to be addressing right now!” It was ridiculous to Pollitt, but for me, I couldn’t leave the house without fearing that somebody under the influence of Sharpton would Freddie’s Fashion Mart me. If you know Sharpton’s role in provoking that racially charged massacre, you know that my fears were not silly.

How was the case resolved? 9/11. Seriously, the 9/11 attacks, which happened while this was going on, gave New York something else to talk about. I don’t know how it would have ended otherwise. And I had not killed a black teenager in a complicated situation, like Zimmerman has. I had only written a lighthearted column poking fun at a black celebrity’s funeral. Yet Sharpton was turning it into a racial showdown, one involving multiple death threats, which, while not coming directly from him, he did nothing to discourage. In fact, he turned the rhetoric up. He’s an evil man. I am sorry to see Trayvon Martin’s family get involved with that snake. No good will come of this.

Even if you believe Zimmerman is guilty, you should be appalled that racists like Al Sharpton, Spike Lee, and others think it’s okay to terrorize Zimmerman. But Zimmerman is not the first person Sharpton, Inc., has attempted to terrorize. This is how he works. It’s been obvious for years to anyone with eyes to see.



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