Off the Shelf
When Talk Turned to Assassinating George W. Bush
Candide's Notebooks/December 30, 3005
Three years ago the British satirist and New Statesman columnist Mark Thomas put a bounty on George Bush’s head. “Given that Osama Bin Laden has a price on his head and is wanted dead or alive for organising acts of terrorism,” Thomas wrote, “it seems only fair to offer a bounty to anyone who can kill George Bush.” Thomas was upset that the president was bankrolling a Colombian government “ involved in the worst human rights abuses in the region.” He wasn’t scrawling this on the bathroom wall of a London pub, or writing it in his blog, but in Britain’s equivalent of, say, the New Republic. So he put up his New Statesman earnings, some $7,000, to entice a taker, with these directions: “If some would-be assassin wants to give me the option, I'd like him taken out with a lethal papier-mache weapon crafted from flour, water, dictionaries and Enron share certificates. However, these are the finer points of President Bush’s demise. I would obviously settle for him accidentally stabbing himself to death with the pin from his enamel US flag badge.” When one of Thomas’ colleagues at the New Statesman wrote that he had gone “a joke too far,” Thomas responded by increasing the bounty by about $300.
None of this was reported in the United States. American journalism takes its “mission” so seriously these days, therefore fails it so efficiently, that it doesn’t tolerate jokes it wouldn’t risk publishing, let alone condone. Plus, no editor wants an FBI visit for even suggestively associating with talk of assassinating a sitting president (an actionable infraction of sorts under USC 18, Section 871, which rules that anyone using the post office to make such threats, or who “knowingly and willfully otherwise makes any such threat,” could face up to five years in prison). American journalism wasn’t about to be more welcoming of a novel on the subject. In came Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint last year.
Briefly put, two friends in their thirties, Jay and Ben, meet in a hotel room so Jay can tell Ben about his fantasy, verging on desire, to assassinate the president. Not a fictional one. Not a has-been. The George Bush. The one with a W. The one who so appeals to, as Jay puts it, “fascist fiddlefucks” who drive around in pick-up trucks, and punditocrats like William Kristol and his “sad sickly smile.” Ben asks him: “You want this wastebasket of a man to be a martyr?” Not that generous, or that smart, or that with it (which should be the first clue to readers and liberal hunters that this is not the how-to screed they immediately and without reading ther book claimed it to be) Jay just wants him offed for what the president is doing in Iraq: “[M]ore than ten thousand Iraqis have been killed in this war. It’s off the charts. Tanks firing on apartment blocks. Morgues and hospitals filled to capacity, blood splashed on the walls. None of it is secret. It’s known, it’s been reported around the world for a full year, and yet there’s no outrage about that, there’s no scandal. What, that? Oh, that’s just the war. I mean, standing naked with a hood over your head while a dog barks at your dick, that’s horrible, but having a missile hit your house is a hell of a lot worse, because you may be carrying your own kid out of the rubble.”
Baker’s books are always interesting and widely reviewed (The Mezzanine,U & I, Vox, The Fermata, etc.). Checkpoint was interesting but not widely reviewed, and when it was, reviewers either savaged it, as Leon Wieseltier did in the New York Times Book Review (“this scummy little book…”) and Timothy Noah did in Slate (“assassination porn”) or gave it the parahgraph-length shrug-off, as in the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. Wieseltier, of course, had a reason for being so vicious. He was one of the 40 neocon signatories to a September 20, 2001 letter, from the Project for the New American Century to President Bush, that stated unequivocally that “even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the [9/11] attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.” Baker’s book, if nothing else, is a pretty good demolishment job not only of Bush’s Iraq policies in general, but of the clubbish neocon fraternity and its delusional hubris (forgive the irresistible redundancy) in particular. Miffed by the descriptions of his supreme waxiness in the book, William Kristol must have put Leon up to the hack job, along with the thirty-eight other signatories.
That said, reviewers just were n’t comfortable with a book premised on a discussion about the assassination of President Bush. Naturally, they missed the point, which is becoming more relevant as the war goes on.
Baker created in Jay a nutty, Section-8 sort of character for a reason. (Jay sincerely thinks his bullets can home in on their target just by “marinating” them “in a box along with a photograph of the person” he wants to shoot). Clearly, he doesn’t want the novel taken so seriously, as Americans inevitably would, did, that it would be taken literally. He’s protecting himself somewhat. But there’s versimilitude in play, too. Sane people don’t go around looking to shoot presidents. It wouldn’t have made a great deal of sense to have a rational, centered character decide, no matter the heartfelt outrage, to plan and execute a president’s assassination. The thought process is by definition “off the charts,” to quote Jay’s words. But then, sane people don’t go around slamming airplanes into buildings, either. And that’s just one of Baker’s clever tricks. In Jay, he has incarnated the sort of would-be terrorist incubating in other lands, but made him an American. Here’s Jay half-way through the novel: “I’m talking about direct action against the guy who’s nominally in charge. George W. Tumblewad. If you as the guy in charge allow killing to go forward, if you in fact actively promote killing, if you order it to happen—if you say, Go, men, launch the planes, start the bombing, shock and awe the living crap out of that ancient city—you are going to create assassins like me. That’s the basic point I’m making.”
That’s the basic point Checkpoint is making: It isn’t speculation or exaggeration to say, as even a CIA think tank concluded in January, that the war in Iraq is manufacturing terrorists. It isn’t speculation or exaggeration, as common prejudice has it, to imagine slightly unhinged militant Islamists (again, forgive the redundancy) getting together in their versions of Motel 6’s to convince each other that George W. Bush has turned them into assassins. Every 500 pound bomb the United States drops in Iraq lights the fuse of another suicide bomber. Baker simply moved the scene to more immediate, familiar settings, to America’s midst, from which there’s no hiding. Jay is as American as the Wal-Marts he despises. But in the end what difference does it make? As a device for the novel, it’s Nicholson’s cleverest, and probably least understood. His readers, critics especially, reactionaries above all, preferred to focus on the Americanness of the author and the Americanness of his characters, therefore conclude inevitably that this is an anti-American book, when Checkpoint is defensively, anxiously patriotic. It speaks to the insanity not even the United States can control. Reactionaries could have brandished it as their own Little Red Book, proof positive of the nut jobs the United States is up against. Instead, Wieseltier-like, they showed their colors: Fear drives them more than truth; they’re more comfortable repressing what threatens their sens of a just world order than considering why that order may be coming unhinged, even from within. But that’s beginning to take Checkpoint a Charlie too far. It is, beginning to end, just a novel.
And so onto the obvious. The nub of the novel, emotionally for the reader and for Jay, is Jay’s description of what pushed him over the edge: the description of a scene at a checkpoint in Iraq where a family trying to escape the mayhem was mistakenly shot at, and a mother says: “I saw the heads of my two little girls come off.” (Who in his right mind, witnessing his child’s head be blown away, would not want to kill anyone responsible for it? That it wasn’t Jay’s child shouldn’t matter, though in this case it ironically does: Jay can’t relate to his own children; another sign of his shakiness). From there Jay decides to visit Dallas and see where Kennedy’s assassin took his shot, “ to see what it feels like to be in the last place where a president was shot dead,” and from there he concocts his wild and crazy scheme to do likewise. With homing, marinated bullets, remember. Except that it takes him to a hotel room with Ben: Checkpoint. Ben stops him. Another obvious little nod to the wonderful American notion of checks and balances. How more obvious could Baker make it to his reactionary readers? It’s in front of their nose: Check-point. It works. Jay is diffused. Reason wins, even over the nutty and the fanatical. It’s possible to be outraged over the war, over Bush, over the killing at the checkpoint (as Ben is) and not turn assassin, terrorist, killer in turn. In that sense Checkpoint is not only unoriginal, it is as moral as Little House on the Prairie, and as trusting as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The reactionaries didn’t have it wrong. They just didn’t read the book. They read the dust jacket. In character.
And talk about the critics’ nonexistent sense of humor! But by now the NSA has homed in on this article’s tail, rustling a copy of USC 18 Sec. 871 for sure, if not for what it has disseminated about the president, then for what it has alluded to about Wal-Mart. So we’ll close on this exchange between Ben and Jay: “I mean,” Ben says, “are you really trying to tell me that you’re going to kill George W. Bush because Wal-Mart is ugly?” Jay: “It’s a contributing factor. It really is.”
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