Threats against Obama: Michael Stephen Bowden is just the latest

Nearly 1 in 10 US presidents have been assassinated or wounded in office. The Secret Service has made more than a dozen arrests in the past two years for threats against Obama. Retiree Michael Stephen Bowden is the latest.

Spartanburg County Detention Center/AP
This booking photo taken Nov. 23, and provided by the Spartanburg County jail, shows Michael Stephen Bowden of Woodruff, S.C. Bowden, a former New York City policeman, was arrested earlier this month after he told a nurse at a Veterans Affairs clinic in Spartanburg he was thinking about killing President Barack Obama.

The arrest of former New York City cop Michael Stephen Bowden for telling a Secret Service agent he'd like to put President Obama up against a wall and shoot him underscores the daily threat matrix for a job that is much more dangerous than, say, the harrowing experience of Bering Sea fishermen as dramatized on the popular TV show "The Deadliest Catch."

Nearly 1 in 10 presidents have been assassinated or shot while in office (the last being Ronald Reagan, in 1981), with another 11 escaping assassination attempts unscathed.

The Secret Service has been particularly busy chasing down threats to Mr. Obama, who faced a barrage of death threats and at least one credible assassination plot while a presidential candidate and since taking office in January 2009.

Last summer, author Ron Kessler wrote that Obama was receiving 30 death threats a day. Other reports state that federal agents had seen a 400-fold increase in threats from President George W. Bush's last year in office. Secret Service head Mark Sullivan later pushed back at that assertion, saying "threats are not up" in the Obama era.

Nevertheless, in the past two years the Secret Service has arrested more than a dozen Americans for posing credible threats to the president. Because of concerns about his safety, candidate Obama received Secret Service protection earlier than any other presidential hopeful in US history. The Secret Service doesn't publicize most threats, fearing that they could inspire copycat attempts.

The most famous Obama assassination plot involved two neo-Nazi skinheads in Tennessee, who were accused in late 2008 of planning to shoot 88 black people, behead another 14, and then kill Obama. Both men pleaded guilty this year to charges of conspiring to kill Obama.

According to the law, "Whoever knowingly and willfully deposits for conveyance in the mail or for a delivery from any post office or by any letter carrier any letter, paper, writing, print, missive, or document containing any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States ... shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both."

Vermont comedian Chris King was arrested Oct. 8 for tweeting: "I am dying inside. And I am plainly stating to you that I am going to kill the president.” Such "death tweets" on the social media network Twitter have figured in several high-profile threat arrests.

"Read literally, the threats-against-the-president statute could apply to someone overheard mouthing off in a bar ..., though authorities aim to prosecute only those individuals deemed to pose credible threats," writes Andy Bromage for Seven Days, a Vermont-based news website. "In King’s case ... his repeated threats online, his mental condition and the fact that he owned guns ... persuaded authorities he posed a risk."

While the vast majority of threats are not serious, authorities ignore threats at the president's peril. In 1994, few people took Francisco Martin Duran seriously when he said he planned to assassinate President Bill Clinton. On Oct. 29, 1994, Mr. Duran unloaded 29 rifle rounds into the White House, injuring no one. In 2001, Secret Service agents shot and then arrested Robert Pickett, an Indiana man, after gunshots were heard outside the White House fence while Mr. Bush was in residence..

Despite such dangers, Secret Service protection insulates presidents from everyday life, which can affect their job performance. "You cannot shake the bubble," writes former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal, about Obama's political problems. "And the worst part is that the army of staff, security and aides that exists to be a barrier between a president and danger ... winds up being a barrier between a president and reality."

Mr. Bowden, an ex-N.Y.C. policeman and firefighter who had retired to South Carolina, didn't write down his threats, but Secret Service were alerted by a Veterans Administration counselor after Bowden said he "was thinking of traveling to Washington, D.C., to shoot the president because he was not doing enough to help African-Americans."

Bowden, who is white, didn't deny the threat when talking to Secret Service officers, and even went on to tell them, "If I had the opportunity, I would shoot [Obama] myself. If I had the opportunity to get Obama against the wall and shoot him, I would." A small arsenal of loaded weaponry was found in Bowden's South Carolina home.

After making a court appearance, Bowden is undergoing mental evaluation through the federal prison system. His son told news outlets that Bowden, in his seventies and in deteriorating health, isn't physically capable of carrying out the threat.

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