Hate Speech is Not Free Speech: Chilean Students’ Killer had a History of Xenophobia

On the morning of Thursday, February 27, 14 friends gathered at a townhome in Miramar Beach, Florida for a party. At around 1:45 am, Dannie Roy Baker, who lived in the same complex as the hosts, crossed the compound with a rifle and opened fire on the partygoers.

By the time police arrived at the scene, five people had been shot—two of them fatally—and the shooter had returned to his home, where he awaited the arrival of police. Since his arrest, Dannie Baker has not spoken to the police so his motive for the killings is not known. But enough information has come out to indicate that it was at least partially motivated by the fact that the victims’ were not native-born Americans. All 14 people at the party, including Baker’s five victims, are Latinos. The two he killed were Chilean students visiting the US as part of a work-study program.

The story is not getting widely picked up in the national media and one of the first places to compile details was the Daily KOS, who reports that Dannie Baker had volunteered with the local Republican Electoral Committee during the 2004 presidential race, after which he apparently sent “radical” and “inappropriate” emails to other members. Baker’s emails were so disturbing that they were reported to the local sheriff’s department but, because the emails did not contain threats against a specific person, the sheriff’s department took no further action against him. The actual text of these emails has not yet been released.

Although Baker had no history of violence, it appears he was not entirely mentally or emotionally stable. According to Jim Anders, a member of the Republican Executive Committee, Baker was very “eccentric” and seemed to have “some emotional problems.” And Crystal Lynn, a neighbor of Baker’s, says “he did come up to me one time and asked me if I was ready for the revolution to begin and if I had any immigrant in my house to get them out.”

Until more information comes out, there’s no way to know what Dannie Baker wrote in those emails that so troubled people that they reported him to the police. Hopefully, he didn’t write about killing immigrants because that would mean the sheriff’s department screwed up big-time by not investigating him further and putting him someplace where he could not be a threat to others. A direct threat against a specific person should justifiably be grounds for police action, but so should threats against a specific group. After all, a hate crime does not target a specific person but it does target a specific group, identified by race, nationality, sexual orientation, or some other collective identity marker.

So if it turns out that Baker had made threats against Latinos or any other immigrant group, the Sheriff’s department should explain why they took no further police action against him. Freedom of speech permits deranged and sane people alike to say whatever they please, but if one of those crazy people rants against foreigners, sends “radical” and “inappropriate” emails, and tells his neighbor to get immigrants out of her house, that ought to be grounds for the local police to do something. Now two people are dead, three are wounded, and an entire community is traumatized. But of course, until the contents of Baker’s emails are released, there’s no way to know if he had made threats against a specific racial group.

At the end of the day, hate speech is not free speech, but it seems many Americans have trouble distinguishing the two. Or perhaps, with more Americans joining hate groups and anti-immigrant rhetoric—to say nothing of anti-immigrant action—becoming more mainstream, the question should not be whether Americans can recognize hate speech but whether and to what extent they are bothered by it. (The fact that several news outlets have mentioned the victims’ immigration status—as if that is relevant to the case!—further illustrates this country’s obsession with immigration. God only knows what the news coverage of this hate crime would look like if the victims had been in the country without the proper immigration paperwork!)

Now, twenty-three-year-old Nicolas Corp-Torres and twenty-two-year-old Racine Baldontin-Aragondona—two of Dannie Baker’s victims—are dead. But they might still be alive had local law enforcement understood, or cared about, the difference between hate speech and free speech the first time they had to deal with Dannie Baker.

Long Before Chuck Norris Put the “Laughter” into Manslaughter, He Was Putting the “Pro” into Propaganda.

chuck-norris.jpg

Chuck Norris has been around for ever, it seems. In addition to discovering the fountain of youth and famously brawling with Kung-Fu legend Bruce Lee, he’s also been in a bunch of movies. For much of the last twenty years, however, he’s been flying under the radar, having spent much of this time as the star of “Walker: Texas Ranger” which, I’m ashamed—or, depending on how you look at it, proud—to say I’ve never watched. But now he’s enjoying a bit of a resurgence in celebrity, thanks to the ubiquitous “Chuck Norris Facts,” and his appearance on Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s campaign ads.

Huckabee opens one of these ads with

My plan for securing the border? Two words: Chuck Norris.”

I cannot think of a better person than Chuck Norris to secure the US border, and I’m happy Mike Huckabee agrees. Because long before Chuck Norris became anybody’s “plan to secure the border,” he was fighting—and killing—America’s most-feared people. On the screen, of course.

Although Chuck Norris had been making movies since 1968, I discovered his work roughly two decades later, due to a series of coincidences, chief among which was the fact that I had yet to be born when he got his first movie role. As it turned out, it was already the mid-1980s when I saw my first Chuck Norris film and by then, it seemed like he was starring in a new movie every year. Three of these—Missing in Action (1984), Invasion U.S.A. (1985), and The Delta Force (1986)—really stayed with me and, thanks to the power of nostalgia and the internet, I’ve had the opportunity to rediscover Chuck Norris. It all started with Chuck Norris Facts and, next thing I knew—thanks to Netflix—Missing in Action was in my DVD player.

I remember watching Missing in Action in the ’80s and at the time thinking it was pretty cool. I mean, here’s badass Chuck Norris in Viet Nam killing people and blowing sh*t up like it was going out of style! What could be more awesome? Or racist, as I realized in watching the movie again. In case you’ve never seen Missing in Action, it stars Chuck Norris as Corporal Braddock, a Viet Nam veteran and former POW who managed to survive excteme cruelty at the hands of his captors and eventually escape from the camp where he and other GIs were being held. He returns soon after as part of a US-government delegation hoping to ascertain whether the Vietnamese government was—despite its official denials—holding POWs and MIAs. Of course, Braddock very quickly gets down to business, i.e., the  business of killing people and blowing stuff up. He also rescues some POWs, but not before breaking into the home of a top general and killing him in his bed.

When I first watched the movie, my prepubescent moral framework only registered satisfaction at seeing Chuck Norris dispatch the “villains” without so much as a flinch. After all, despite my politically unformed mind, it was quite easy to pick out the villains—they were the brown-skinned ones. Watching the movie again as an adult, however, I found myself deeply troubled by the wanton violence committed against the Vietnamese characters. I mean, Braddock kills almost every Vietnamese soldier he encounters, even stopping in one scene to kill four whose greatest crime was being out on patrol nowhere near the POW camp Chuck Norris was heading for.

Even worse than the grotesque violence was the completely warped political and moral message of the film. At no point do we get to see why or in what context US soldiers were in Viet Nam. There’s no way to know that these GIs were embroiled in a civil war thousands of miles away from their own country. The Vietnamese, for their part, are simply bad guys. Nowhere is the US role in Viet Nam even remotely examined. In one scene, the Vietnamese generals organized a press conference during which they accused Braddock of committing war crimes, arguing that he was imprisoned on war crimes charges and not as a POW. A group of bedraggled Vietnamese peasants are then brought in and asked to publicly accuse Braddock of war crimes. Instead, the shamefaced peasants all avoid eye contact with him and the last one, a frail old man, apologizes to him in Vietnamese. Braddock accepts his apology and forgives the peasants’ betrayal.

Of course, anyone who knows even a little about the war in Viet Nam knows that war crimes were par for the course for US soldiers. From “free-fire zones” to napalm to Agent Orange, it seems there were few war crimes that were not committed in Viet Nam. But you wouldn’t know any of this from watching Missing in Action. On the contrary, the movie takes a legitimate Vietnamese claim and makes it look ridiculous. What you see instead is a heroic American soldier who was so good to the Vietnamese that the peasants brought in to incriminate him are too guilt-ridden to even look him in the eye. And we know that Braddock cares about Southeast Asians because he’s deeply hurt when a Vietnamese assassin botches an attempt on his life in Bangkok, instead killing several Thai bystanders. Braddock cares so much that, as he uses his bare hands to shove an axe head into the would-be-assassin’s chest, he lets him know how much he was affected by the death of those innocent Thais.

I realize now that the point of Missing in Action was neither to inform nor to educate. But I’m also sure it was not meant solely to entertain. It was meant to assuage Americans’ guilt over the outcome of the Viet Nam War, not to mention revise history to portray GIs as kind and compassionate towards the Vietnamese people. But the ’80s was also the coldest decade of the Cold War, and no chance was missed to propagandize against Communism. So naturally, Chuck Norris’ adversaries were the Communist Vietnamese, whom he casually kills whenever the opportunity presents itself, which was often, considering he was in a country full of Vietnamese people.

Missing in Action, however, was not the first and only time Chuck Norris did onscreen battle with America’s phantasms. In 1981, he starred in An Eye for an Eye, in which he battles an Asian drug ring. Invasion U.S.A. stars him as a retired CIA agent who single-handedly thwarts a Soviet invasion of Miami. And in The Delta Force, he goes up against Arab/Muslim hijackers. This film actually gets honorable mention in Jack Shaheen’s book/documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Villifies a People for its role in propagating very negative stereotypes of Arabs. I have to confess that my youthful antipathy towards Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, was in no small part due to The Delta Force and other movies of that ilk. But that’s neither here nor there.

What’s noteworthy is that American politicians have a long history of using bêtes noires as political footballs, and the film industry is often a willing accomplice. After all, the manipulation of fear is an age-old political strategy, and candidates have long used people’s fears and insecurities to win votes. Wherever there is fear, there is political gain to be made. Once upon a time, Native Americans, slaves, and the Irish were feared. Then it was Communists and Anarchists. Then it was homosexuals and Arabs. Now it’s Latinos. And Arabs. And Muslims.

Because Chuck Norris has such a long history of battling America’s bogeymen—from Asian drug gangs to Communists—it’s only natural that he would be called on to secure America’s borders against our latest national nightmares. Today’s bogeymen, however, are not Communists. They are terrorists and illegal immigrants. It’s fitting then that Chuck Norris—who has so much experience in fighting America’s cinematic enemies—would be recruited on TV to fight against the illegal immigrants/terrorists who, we are told every night on TV, are trying to sneak across the US border to take away our jobs and blow up our shopping malls.