woody zimmermann 120Back in the American mafia’s halcyon days, when it seemed almost a law and an entire culture unto itself – indirectly assisted by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who didn’t believe organized crime even existed – systematic murder was a tool for enforcing the syndicate’s rules and policies. As the mob’s structure became more fixed, the capos (bosses) decreed that murders must be “sanctioned” by the capo di capos, and should be carried out by a designated arm, which became known as Murder Incorporated. It was headed by the ruthless killer and underboss, Umberto (Albert) Anastasia, who earned the well-deserved moniker, The Mad Hatter of Crime.

In the ten years of this execution squad’s operation, Anastasia and his “soldiers” carried out no fewer than 400 (and possibly as many as 1000) murders, most of which were never solved. Anastasia was not prosecuted for any of these crimes – probably because he did not personally participate in most of them. Ultimately, his involvement in a power-struggle for control of one of the syndicate’s crime families led to his own assassination in October 1957. He was shot to death by two masked men as he sat in a barber’s chair at the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan. His driver had left Anastasia alone for a few minutes to park their car in a nearby garage. It was never discovered if the driver had deliberately left Anastasia unguarded as part of a setup to clear the way for his killing. (One doubts that NYC police took very great pains to find out.) Whatever the truth might have been, Albert Anastasia died by the same sword he had lived by. True to form, no one was ever prosecuted for his murder.

albert anastasiaPHOTO: Umberto (Albert) Anastasia (1902-1957)

I relate this sordid snippet of crime-history as backdrop for my observations on the present day, when murder – or at least verbal advocacy thereof – has become fashionable in (of all places!) presidential politics. In the past several days, two notable public figures have suggested (aloud!) that politicians they don’t like might be “eliminated” more efficiently by assassins than by voters.

During a February 25th “jokefest” at the Washington Press Club, Senator Lindsey Graham said, “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.” (Har har har – isn’t that rich?) And on February 24, noted Christian apologist and New York Times writer Ross Douthat tweeted: “Good news guys, I’ve figured out how the Trump campaign ends.” He included a clip from a little-known film, The Dead Zone, in which a man sees a vision of the future predicting that a current candidate for the Senate will eventually start a nuclear war. To save the world, the visionary uses a rifle to try to assassinate the candidate.

To his credit, Mr. Douthat quickly tweeted a retraction and apology: “A lot readers were offended by my Trump/"Dead Zone" joke from yesterday. I can see why, and I've deleted the tweet. Apologies.” At this writing, there is no report of Senator Graham issuing any kind of apology for his “joke.” (Exercise for the reader: try to imagine how a similar “joke” about Hillary Clinton or President Obama might be received by the media.)

I’ve been following politics for over 50 years, but I can’t think of a time when the level of public discourse has sunk this low. I was only seven years old – still too young to be aware of news – when two “advocates” of Puerto Rican independence invaded the grounds of Blair House with the clear intention of assassinating President Truman, who was temporarily living there. In a wild gun-battle, both a Capitol policeman and one assailant were killed, and two other officers wounded, before the assassins could reach the president. Some of my older friends – one an actual eyewitness of the shootout from a nearby drugstore – still spoke of it, 30 years on. The incident shocked the country.

Later, when I was a 20-year-old college student, President John Kennedy was shot to death in his open presidential limousine on a bright November day in Dallas, Texas. The shock and horror of that event has never left me. His brother, Robert Kennedy, and civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. were also killed by assassins, later in that same decade. In the 1970s, assassins’ bullets narrowly missed President Gerald Ford in two separate incidents during a ten-day trip to California.

Thirty-five years have now passed since President Ronald Reagan had a (very) close brush with death on March 31, 1981, when John Hinckley, Jr. opened fire on the president and his party, at close range, as they emerged from a garage-exit of the Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC. In the six-shot fusillade, Mr. Reagan was hit in the lung. He didn’t realize the seriousness of his wound, but his quick transport to a nearby hospital by Secret Service agents undoubtedly saved his life. He collapsed with a blood pressure of zero as he attempted to walk into the hospital’s emergency entrance. Only much later did the public learn how near the president was to death.

With all this mayhem occurring just within the span of my own lifetime, we shouldn’t have to be reminded of how terrible any politically motivated killing is. Of course, political differences always flourish among us. I didn’t agree with the politics of either JFK or his brother Robert, but I was absolutely horrified by their deaths, as millions of my fellow citizens were. President Kennedy’s killing was especially gruesome. Seated next to him in the car, Mrs. Kennedy was spattered with his brains as a bullet exploded his head. I have always felt that she deserved a free ride for the rest of her life because of that dreadful event. No one should have to go through that.

No decent individual should ever find pleasure or advantage in the violent death of another human being. This includes any death for political reasons, no matter how much we might disagree with that person. Nor should anyone ever say aloud that the country might be better off if an opponent were killed. Such things can never be said, even in jest. To understand this, ask yourself if a “joke” suggesting that some female politician should be raped can ever be acceptable. Obviously not. Any politician, reporter or other public figure would be pilloried and driven from public life for such a statement. What makes us think, then, that “joking” about killing a political opponent is just harmless “fun?” No one should even think such a thing.

Unless I hear some kind of apology from Senator Graham for his tasteless “joke” about Senator Cruz, I shall never again listen to any public statement from him. Nor would I ever vote for him in any context. Some things are beyond the pale. Joking about killing a respected colleague is one of them. I plan to write to the senator to demand his immediate public apology.

Last year I heard Ross Douthat speak at a Mere Anglicanism conference in Charleston, South Carolina. I found him to be reasonable, intelligent, and genuinely Christian in his outlook. The story of his family’s journey to faith through the miraculous healing of his mother was inspiring. Although his stupid tweet-joke was disappointing, it was not quite as damaging as Senator Graham’s remark – mainly because Mr. Douthat quickly realized his error and apologized. Anyone can make a mistake. I hope this was a rare one for a fine thinker and writer whom I respect and admire.

Every other day some politician declares, “This is not who we are…” on some issue. Although that statement is a bit hackneyed, we shall do well to apply it to this discussion. Our recent flirtation with the Anastasia Model should be a national wake-up call. No, this is not who we are! Problems and political differences cannot be solved by violence. Let’s crawl out of the gutter, clean ourselves off, and return to decency. Enough with the cracks about “killing” political opponents! They have no place in our political discourse. We really have to stop this before some nut-case is motivated to commit a dreadful act.

Nowadays the Bible is pressed into service to support all kinds of causes by politicians of uncertain religious bent. Did you realize, for instance, that the Bible actually supports unregulated national borders? The Pope says it does. (Who knew?) But one seldom hears Biblical passages that resound across the centuries like a great bell, calling us to righteousness. One of these is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. I commend it to my readers’ reflection:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things…” (Philippians 4:8; NIV)

As Pastor Lon Solomon likes to say, “Not a sermon – just a thought…”