The country is in a bad place at the moment. As Evan Thomas and Eve Conant report this week, we are seeing a disturbing number of threats against lawmakers, a grim manifestation of the inchoate political and cultural anger on the American right. It is natural to try to reassure ourselves that the talk is coming only from nuts and small-timers, but nuts and small-timers with guns (or, in the case of Oklahoma City 15 years ago next week, truck bombs) change history. Words matter, for extreme rhetoric creates a climate in which those on the fringe may threaten, or even take, extreme measures, and that way madness lies.
Here is the story of one threat, told through the words of FBI Special Agent Carolyn W. Woodbury of the bureau's Seattle office. Last week, in the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Washington state, Woodbury detailed her investigation into Charles Alan Wilson, who is now charged with threatening to "assault and murder a United States official"—Washington Sen. Patty Murray.
Until March 22, 2010, Wilson, 63, of Selah, Wash., a city 140 miles from Seattle, had apparently been a fairly run-of-the-mill crank, an angry constituent who called Murray's Seattle office at off hours to leave what Woodbury called "harassing" voice mails. A profile in courage, he blocked his telephone number and always spoke anonymously.
On March 22—the day after Congress passed the health-care-reform bill and a day before President Obama signed it into law—Wilson took his rhetoric to a different level. At 10:23 a.m. on the 23rd, he left a message for Murray saying: "By your attempts to overtake this country with socialism, somebody's gonna get to you one way or another and blow your f--king brains out, and I hope it does happen. If I have the chance, I would do it." Five minutes after the message quoted above, there was another from Wilson: "Kill the f--king senator! Hang the f--king senator!" On another call, he said: "This great country that believes in God and guns. Since you've done this, there's going to be some bigger targets on your f--king back…I hope somebody kills you, and I hope somebody kills [the president]. Yes, die, dead."
The messages kept coming, and by my count, the caller used the F word 86 times in the excerpts provided by Woodbury. (Given the other vicious, misogynistic terms of abuse he used, the F word was the least of it.) On March 24 the senator's office contacted the FBI, and in came Woodbury and her colleagues. Checking phone records, the agents learned that the calls in question (except one, which did not appear in the records) had come from a hard line publicly listed to Charles Alan Wilson.
The next step was shrewd. FBI Special Agent Cory Cote called Wilson. Cote said he was a representative of "Patients United Now," an anti-reform group. In the call, Wilson "repeatedly expressed his strong dislike" for the bill; confirmed that he often called Murray and her colleague, Sen. Maria Cantwell; and used language similar to that of the caller to Murray's voice mail. Not one for subtlety, Wilson also told Agent Cote that "they [presumably the bill's supporters] need to be strung up, and I mean put [in] the gallows. I will take no prisoners…And I don't care what they think. They want to come throw me in jail, they can go ahead and do that. That's fine."
A good narrative always has a dramatic ending, and Woodbury has a fine sense of drama. Wilson, she said, also told Cote that he possessed, and regularly carried, a firearm. She then allowed Wilson to hang himself in his own words: "I do pack, and I will not blink when I'm confronted, and that is a guarantee. It's not a threat, it's a guarantee…And I work in a neighborhood where I have to pack…I pack a .38." Woodbury's climactic point: "My investigation has confirmed that Wilson has been issued a valid concealed-weapons permit, and that he has a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver registered to him."
Yes, we have been here before. Yes, the '60s (in both the 19th and 20th centuries) were bloody and chaotic—much more so than our own age. But these are real threats in real time—in our time. If you doubt it, ask Special Agents Woodbury and Cote.