Where does the "terrorist fist jab" come from?

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July 14 2008 5:15 PM

The "Terrorist Fist Jab" and Me

How that misconception about Obama's gesture got started.

New Yorker Cover. Click image to expand

This week's New Yorker cover lampoons right-wing paranoia about Barack and Michelle Obama by depicting them clad as terrorists and bumping fists in the Oval Office. It's provoked some outrage—not among Republicans who fell for the false Internet claim that giving dap was a secret terrorist ritual, but among Democrats who fear that giving this misinformation greater currency, even by lampooning it, could hurt Obama. "Most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive,"complained Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "And we agree."

It's often asked, "Where does stupid stuff on the Internet come from?" In this instance, I think probably it came from me. Although I didn't originate the conceit, I'm pretty sure that I'm the one who put it in circulation. Er, sorry. Like The New Yorker, I never intended anyone to take it as anything other than a laughable example of ignorance.

The morning after Obama locked up the nomination, I was writing a "Trailhead" item that mocked the media's difficulty in figuring out what to call the now famous gesture. "Fist-pound," "knuckle-bump," and "fist-to-fist thumbs up" were among the funnier examples, but one of them—"Hezbollah-style fist jab"—was particularly risible. It came from the Web site for Human Events, a hard-right weekly. Unfortunately, I failed to note that its provenance was not the magazine itself but a reader comment posted below an unrelated column by Cal Thomas. I linked the phrase to the column but didn't explain that the words weren't Thomas'.

Many "Trailhead" readers clicked through to Thomas' column and, not finding the phrase there, assumed that Thomas or his bosses had wiped it from his column. What really happened, it seems, is that Human Events removed the reader comment after many other readers posted comments taking offense and/or debunking it. These latter comments remained, while the comment that provoked the outrage vanished into thin air, creating further confusion about its origin.

When I realized the confusion I'd helped cause, I posted a correction. But it was too late. Liberal bloggers from all over had already seized on the phrase. Time and Politico misreported that the words were Thomas'. Then, fatefully, Fox News anchor E.D. Hill jauntily paraphrased "Hezbollah-style fist jab" on air as "terrorist fist jab." Hill wasn't endorsing the phrase, but she failed to make clear that she was citing someone else's characterization. She apologized the next day but lost her show anyway.

As this chronology makes clear, what began as one Human Events reader's paranoid claim quickly became, to nearly everyone who cited it, an example of appalling anti-Obama paranoia. That includes Barry Blitt, the artist who drew TheNew Yorker's cover (he also drew last year's genius Ahmadinejad cover) and who titled it "The Politics of Fear." Indeed, you could argue that the isolated lunatic Internet comment itself never really became a meme—that the only notion to spread beyond the reader-comment section of Human Events was the meta-meme "Obama-haters are spreading a hateful and untrue rumor about his use of the fist bump." But I suppose it's plausible that this could trickle down to real-life Obama-haters as "Obama and his wife made a terrorist gesture." Throughout this election, similarly false Obama-hating accusations have tended to stick: Obama is a Muslim; there's a tape in which Michelle says "whitey." Just to be clear: Obama is not a Muslim, and no such tape exists. And, no, Obama's fist bump was not a secret show of solidarity to Hezbollah. It's really a secret show of solidarity to Hamas. Just kidding!

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.