I recently met with a willing, would-be executioner: a man who said he would gladly kill former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Hillary too, of course.
At first, I figured he was joking. He assured me he was not.
“I think you underestimate the number of people who would pin a medal on me,” he said. Later, over email, I asked him to clarify. He wasn’t actually serious about murdering anyone, was he?
“My disgust for the conduct of the Clintons and Obama while they were in office is such that after they were tried and convicted, I would be glad to serve as their executioner. Preferably by driving over them in my car, several times,” he replied.
I got to know Edward Chapman, a 75-year-old retired federal employee who worked for the Department of the Army in St. Louis, when he started writing to me years ago. He was always polite and good-natured in his responses to my columns. Initially, I responded to his notes because he seemed genuinely curious about my ideas and beliefs, and he could disagree without being disagreeable. I knew we were on opposite sides of many political issues, although I had no idea of the depths of his animus toward former Democratic presidents.
He has emailed me at least a couple of times a month for several years. Once, he didn’t even know where to begin in taking down an argument I had made for better gun control regulations, so I asked him to send me articles he wanted me to read. Weeks later, I received a package with a half-dozen pro-NRA articles and a used copy of a book by John Locke. After I wrote about my disgust for the Trump administration’s family separation policy, he was so incensed by my position, he said, that he’d taken a day to cool off before writing me.
When a producer from StoryCorps reached out to me this summer about sitting down with a reader for a face-to-face, recorded interview, I immediately thought of Chapman. StoryCorps is a nonprofit that records interviews that can be submitted to the Library of Congress or aired on NPR. Its mission is to “preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people.”
Going into the interview, I was inspired by the spirit of bipartisanship at Sen. John McCain’s recent funeral, and ready to find some common ground. Then, when we finally met, Chapman’s first question to me was whether I actually practiced Islam, which he considers one of the greatest evils in the world.
There may not be as much common ground here as I had hoped.
He informed me that he was convinced that “raghead Obama” is a Muslim. I asked if any evidence could convince him otherwise. He said that the Pope himself could vouch for Obama’s Christianity and Obama could present Jesus to him, and he would still believe Obama was a Muslim. (For the record, Obama is a Christian.) I’d had no clue that my loyal reader was so deeply committed to conspiracy theories -- although, a 2016 poll found that two-thirds of Trump supporters believe Obama is a Muslim, so maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised.
I told him about the boy in seventh grade who called my mom a “raghead” every day after school. Chapman said I was less of “an Islamic” in his eyes than Obama.
I encourage my children to talk to people outside their bubble of those who agree with them. It’s the only way to get a better understanding of the world we live in. But is there value in talking to people who reject reason and evidence and embrace bigoted views of others?
I honestly don’t know.
What I do know is that I ended up spending two hours talking to someone I normally would have written off. I discovered we both care deeply about protecting the environment, and that both our lives have been touched by Alzheimer’s (his wife, my grandparents).
I learned how easily people can compartmentalize their views: Chapman seemed completely sensible on certain topics and unhinged on others.
I seemed to puzzle him the same way. He said I’m a contradiction to him, because I’m a Muslim woman who seems like an intelligent, American suburban mom, whose writing he enjoys. How can this be?
I am perplexed how a man who would take joy in killing Obama, and who believes newspapers distort or hide the truth, could appreciate anything I have to offer.
We each must hope that we can influence the other in some way. More than “making connections” or recognizing our shared humanity, I think we both realized the limits to understanding.