Friday, October 24, 2008

Ashley Todd’s October boogeyman

Danger has a new old face and shape in the election-eve United States of 2008. It is a black man with a taste for facial mutilation, a behemoth six-feet four inches tall, preying on young, white, female supporters of Sen. John McCain. It is a kind of demon the nation has faced down in the past. It is, this time like before, a demon that doesn’t exist. But ironically, its victim may be John McCain.

Ashley Todd, of College Station, Texas, a 20-year-old field representative for the College Republicans, was the latest to fall prey to this American boogeyman. News reports detailed her arrest today for lying to police. Todd, extensively interviewed by Pittsburgh police, told investigators she was attempting to use a bank branch ATM in Pittsburgh when a black man in patent leather shoes (!) approached her from behind, put a knife with a 4- to 5-inch blade to her throat and demanded money. She told police she gave her assailant $60 and walked away.

Todd claimed that she suspected the man then noticed a McCain sticker on her car, got angry and struck her in the back of the head, knocking her to the ground and saying "you're going to be a Barack supporter," police said. She said it was then that the man carved the initial 'B' into her face.

Sadly, no. Todd finally admitted to having made it all up. A straight-up hoax. After three days of questioning, Todd "just opened up and said she wanted to tell the truth," said Maurita Bryant, assistant chief of the police investigations division, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Todd had no explanation for why she ginned up the story, police said. She was arrested and charged for making a false report to police. Her Web page of “Life in the Field,” described as “a project of the College Republican National Committee,” was taken down shortly after everything went south.

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The Ashley Todd incident reawakens an old and sadly convenient scapegoating of black American males. We’ve been here before and before.

This coming Nov. 4 will have its own reason to be remembered. But on Nov. 4, 1994, the black male residents of Union, S. C., were exonerated from broad racial blame when Susan V. Smith, the mother of two children she said were kidnapped by a mythical black carjacker, admitted to murdering those children herself. The all-points bulletin for a black male perp was called off. After nine days of authorities searching. Nine days of black men being suspected for nothing.

In 1989, black men were collectively demonized in Boston when Charles Stuart killed his wife and blamed it on a nonexistent black male phantom, only to commit suicide when his elaborate story fell apart.

These were two examples of complete fabrication of a boogeyman. There are other cases of corrosive racial mental gymnastics, with real people as targets.

In March 1988, Joe Morgan, baseball Hall of Famer and sports broadcaster, was briefly arrested by Los Angeles police — thrown to the floor of the terminal at Los Angeles International Airport while waiting for a flight and mistakenly accused of being a drug courier.

In May 1995, Earl G. Graves, a senior vice president for Black Enterprise magazine, was restrained by two transit police officers in New York, in another case of mistaken identity, an arrest based on a physical description so broad and vague as to be no description at all.

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That this kind of thing is happening at all this transformative year is bad enough. The way it’s playing out makes things even worse for the McCain campaign than they’ve been already. Beyond the obvious liability this poses for the McCain campaign —already under ethical fire for an increasingly mendacious campaign strategy — there’s reason for suspicion that, oddly, perversely, some part of this may have been anticipated — or more — by Team McCain.

Talking Points Memo’s Greg Sargent reported today that: “John McCain's Pennsylvania communications director told reporters in the state an incendiary version of the hoax story about the attack on a McCain volunteer well before the facts of the case were known or established -- and even told reporters outright that the 'B' carved into the victim's cheek stood for 'Barack,' according to multiple sources familiar with the discussions.”

“John Verrilli, the news director for KDKA in Pittsburgh, told TPM Election Central that McCain's Pennsylvania campaign communications director gave one of his reporters a detailed version of the attack that included a claim that the alleged attacker said, 'You're with the McCain campaign? I'm going to teach you a lesson.'"

But whether or not Team McCain had any direct, actual hand in this latest exercise in racial innuendo almost doesn’t matter. Throughout the last few months, by use of character assassination, and through a passive-aggressive, sub rosa appeal to the ethnically-flavored antagonisms of the crowd, the McCain campaign has laid the groundwork, has offered a tacit approval of and permission for this behavior done on its behalf.

McCain’s continuing scorched-earth practices on the campaign trail made Ashley Todd possible.

The McCain wrecking crew will work mightily over the next days to put distance between Todd and the campaign. But the damage is done — mostly to a presidential campaign whose ethical foundation has long since collapsed under the weight of political ambition.

John McCain doesn’t need any outside boogeymen for his campaign. He’s his own worst boogeyman right now.
Image credits: Ashley Todd B: Associated Press. Susan Smith: South Carolina Department of Corrections. Ashley Todd perpwalk: Agency unknown. McCain: Public domain.

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