Death of a Bigot

In South Africa, Argentina, Mozambique, Honduras, and Nicaragua, Helms cooperated with racists and fascists who have nothing in common with the ideals of American democracy - Boston Globe editorial, 2001

Religious bigots are wont to dismiss as ‘abominations’ those their preferred tyrannical ‘good’ book finds fault with. They love to lord it over those they detest, as Anne Lamont observed, by demonstrating that god is on their side because he hates the same people they do. Now, someone who can be fittingly described as the real thing in terms of possessing genuinely abominable characteristics – qualities would be the wrong type of word - passes unmolested by the inquisitionist probing of the sanctimonious brethren. Even worse, they are frequently praised to the mythical high heavens.

Jesse Helms, a deeply religious miscreant, was without doubt an abomination. His death at the age of 86 prompts lots of comments – ‘at last’ not the most uncommon – but only one query: surely if god did exist would he really have granted the number of bountiful years that fell the way of this villain while at the same time inflicting AIDS on a child just out of its mother’s womb or condemn another to death by malnutrition?

A deacon and Sunday School teacher in his local Baptist church prior to taking up a Senate seat, Helms once proclaimed that ‘the only thing I am running for is the Kingdom of Heaven.’ His Christian love led him to vote against disability aid proposals, hate the civil rights movement, label Martin Luther King a communist and sex pervert, feel the victims of rape should be compelled to give birth to the offspring of the rapist, eulogise the fascist Pinochet, endorse Raoul Cedras who massacred civilians in Haiti, back the Contras in Nicaragua, and oppose sanctions aimed at ending the regime of apartheid in South Africa.

Helms’ perspective was brutally simple. In 1994 The New York Times reported that:
For Mr. Helms, the devil lived down in Latin America during the 1980's. The Senator and his staff aimed to fight him. They became a crucible of American support for the far right wing: politicians linked to death squads in El Salvador; the Guatemalan military which killed thousands of people suspected of ties to the left; Honduran military intelligence; the Argentine junta; and other violently authoritarian governments of the era.

Anyone with a passing interest in the politics of Latin America will be no stranger to this. Over the decades when any human rights impulse in the region made itself felt Helms could be relied upon to stand atop Capitol Hill and shout encouragement to the death squads as they sought to behead human rights advances off at the pass. Countless numbers of headless human corpses would turn up in the rubbish dumps and beaches of El Salvador courtesy of the friends of Jesse Helms. The leader of the Salvadoran right wing death squads and the man believed to have ordered the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Major Roberto D’Aubisson, was described by Helms as a ‘deeply religious’ man. No doubt he was. Hacking people to bits or burning them is the type of activity numerous religious sorts have been at since man first created god and immediately pretended that it was the other way round. An arch hypocrite who argued against abortion on the grounds that he would ‘never be silent about the death of those who cannot speak for themselves’ his entire career was based on enforcing silence for thugs like D’Aubisson and other mass murderers of children.

Helms, a senator from 1973, emerged as a powerful presence in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at one point shoving and bullying his way through to chair it. According to the Sunday Times, during the Clinton Presidency ‘he held up 400 promotions in the State Department, the passage of 12 foreign treaties and the approval of 30 ambassadors.’ In 1993, when Clinton asked for confirmation for a gay assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Helms exploded, ‘I’m not going to put a lesbian in a position like that … If you want to call me a bigot, fine.’ A New Orleans blogger, Gentilly Girl, stated that ‘his office once responded to me that all of the Gay boys deserved to die for their sins.’ In the abominable mind of the Christian senator gays were ‘weak morally sick wretches’, abominations, unlike, death squad leaders who were alright sort of guys.

His persistent obstructionism earned him the title Senator No. But unlike his fellow religious bigot Dr No who was allowed to run the North of Ireland for a year – and with whom he, surprise, surprise, shared many similar views - Senator No, despite the onset of vascular dementia and an easing up of his opposition to helping those suffering from AIDS, never stepped back.

Helms was a racist and looked back to the halcyon days when US blacks ‘knew their place.’ In a 1950 election campaign he helped write an ad urging ‘White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories?’ In 1993 the first African-American woman to be elected to the US Senate, Carol Moseley-Braun, during an elevator ride had to endure Helms singing "Dixie". He boasted ‘I'm going to make her cry. I'm going to sing Dixie until she cries.’ In 1994 he branded the University of North Carolina as ‘the University of Negroes and Communists.’ Later when a caller to the Larry King Live show lauded Helms for ‘everything you've done to help keep down the niggers’ Helms turned to the camera, saluted it and said ‘well, thank you, I think.’

When political and religious leaders from the US president down – or, in terms of ethical qualities and intellectual ability, from the president up – rolled out to eulogise the bigot it was heartening therefore to find amongst the obituaries for the rabid racist titles such as ‘Death of an old Monster’ and ‘Jesse Helms Finally does the right thing’, or no punches pulled commentary like ‘I have hated that bigoted bastard all of my life. He came to power in ‘57 and was always a nasty word in our household.’ And due praise to LF Eason, the head of a Department of Agriculture lab who had to leave the only job he ever had for refusing to lower the US flag as a mark of respect for Helms on the grounds that the flag could not be allowed to salute the ‘doctrine of negativity, hate, and prejudice’ pursued by the former senator for North Carolina.

Because he died on the 4th of July there are those eager to depict him as a great America first advocate whose patriotism was underscored by the date of his death. In the words of Billy Graham ‘it is fitting that such a patriot who fought for free markets and free people would die on Independence Day.’ A more fitting comment came from Gentilly Girl: ‘some of his champions are happy he died on the Fourth, but I see it as if the concept of Freedom removed him from our midst on this special day.’

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