Obama Gets a Super Escort; Fears of Another Dallas

The black Senator is receiving threats and racist messages

Cincinnati, OH – When the ‘traveling press’ bus stops in front of Union Terminal – one of the art-deco masterpieces of the United States – the secret service agents have already lined up, waiting. They had frisked the Hotel’s exit just an hour before, aided by dogs. Now the procedure is repeated: we arranged the computers and trolleys on the sidewalk, the German Shepherds sniff them one by one, while we place ourselves in line outside – the temperature is at minus five degrees – for personal inspection.

Even better is when we have to do the same thing on the runway at the airport at the feet of the Boeing 737 while the wind gives us a lashing. This occurs five or six times a day, every time we enter the same place to wait for the arrival of ‘Renegade’. And each time I have the same thought: is this necessary? Is it crazy to have to repeat it over and over again? ‘Renegade’ is Barack Obama. The Secret Service has christened him so in order to quickly identify him, as the African-American Senator has been placed under the protection of federal agents since May 2007. It is unprecedented that a presidential candidate has been taken on this early as a responsibility by the government’s security apparatus. But in the case of Obama, notwithstanding the threats and racists messages that arrive in the campaign’s mailbox, it is history and collective memory that demands such prudence and precaution. Forty years have passed since the bloody spring of 1968, when in a span of two months Martin Luther King, the non-violent prophet of racial reconciliation, and Senator Robert Kennedy, then close to the Democratic nomination, were assassinated. And today there are enough striking similarities with that season of enthusiasm and hope to fuel a fear, often irrational, that the tragedy might repeat itself. The first black candidate with a serious chance of aiming for the Presidency embodies the same hopes and anxieties that come with change, the same experienced with King and Kennedy. But he defies these ghosts, and in a country that has never really found peace among the ‘melting pot’ of its races. There are not – at this moment – any precise or credible threats. But the overwhelming success of his candidacy and the stadium crowds that accompany its every appearance have necessitated an increase in the level of protection. “Only President Bush has a higher level of it,” one of Obama’s staffers tells us. Even though the exact number might be private information, he has at least 25 guardian angels all day and night.

In January, in order to solicit a higher level of protection for Obama, Bennie Thompson, Democratic Representative from Mississippi and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, wrote to the Homeland Security Secretary: “As an African-American who has lived through many of this country’s most disgraceful moments during the Civil Rights Movement, I know personally that the hate of some of our fellow countrymen can result in horrific acts of violence.” Obama tries to portray himself as untroubled. “I have the best security in the world…I do not believe I need to worry myself about it so much,” he says on the flight from Cincinnati to Cleveland, when we put the question to him. And he recalls that “neither Bobby Kennedy nor Reverend King was protected by the secret service.” “But aren’t you afraid?” we press on. “My wife is right when she says that we must remember the words of Coretta Scott King: do not fear the future, there is no challenge that we are not capable of beating.” Yet the worries remain. They are fed as well by the endorsement given to Barack Obama by Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy, perhaps a symbolic handing over of a noble and tragic legacy. The African-American community is scared, finally united behind him after initial doubts that were at times informed by a desire to not see him too exposed to danger. The orphans of “the Dream” tremble, as they see in Obama all that was taken from them by the bullets of 1968. Last Wednesday in Dallas, the city where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the secret service unexpectedly stopped to frisk the people that were entering an Obama event. They did it in order to manage the line of thousands of people, in appearance without risking anything. But for many, such methods cause a shiver to run down the spine.

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