Tea Party superstar Representative Allen West released one of the toughest attack ads of the campaign season on Friday, contrasting his military career with his Democratic opponent’s arrest as a teenager following a drunken bar night—complete with a mug shot:
Feb. 16, 2003, Fort Hood, Texas. Lt. Col. Allen West had just received deployment orders, and prepares his men to go to war. That night, South Beach, Miami: Patrick Murphy is thrown out of a club for fighting, covered in alcohol, and unable to stand. Murphy then confronts and verbally assaults a police officer. Patrick Murphy was arrested and taken to jail. Two men, a country in crisis—you decide.
To make the point even more bluntly, the West campaign put out a press release along with the ad saying that Murphy is a “spoiled brat who knows nothing of duty, honor or service.”
The voters of Florida’s 18th District will have to decide if they want to hold Murphy’s run-in with the law against him. But it’s odd that West trumpets “duty, honor and service” in comparison to the transgression, while touting his military career—because his record there is, by almost any measure, more ignominious than an arrest for drunk and disorderly conduct.
West resigned from the military in 2004, following an incident involving his unit’s treatment of an Iraqi man. West himself was charged with two violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including one against assault, and agreed to retire after an Article 15 hearing in order to avoid a court martial.
According to a 2004 account in The New York Times, West let the soldiers under his command beat the Iraqi man, whom West believed was involved in an attempt on his life. (No evidence was ever found implicating the man). Then, he staged a mock execution:
Soon, the soldiers began striking and shoving Mr. Hamoodi. They were not instructed to do so by Colonel West but they were not stopped, either, they said. ‘I didn’t know it was wrong to hit a detainee,” a 20-year-old soldier from Daytona Beach said at the hearing. Colonel West testified that he would have stopped the beating ”had it become too excessive.”
Eventually, the colonel and his soldiers moved Mr. Hamoodi outside, and threatened him with death. Colonel West said he fired a warning shot in the air and began counting down from five. He asked his soldiers to put Mr. Hamoodi’s head in a sand-filled barrel usually used for clearing weapons. At the end of his count, Colonel West fired a shot into the barrel, angling his gun away from the Iraqi’s head, he testified.
Far from being a scab on his political career, this episode actually helped propel West’s fortunes on the right. He initially became a minor cause célèbre among right-wing bloggers who felt West was being persecuted by those insisting on “political correctness” in a combat zone. West exploited this status as he was running for Congress, appearing on right-wing outlets to denounce the Army’s rules of engagement, which he believed were handcuffing American troops in their battle against the “Islamic enemy.”
West’s campaign was, in fact, a mini-crusade against Islam. On the trail, he declared that “Islam is a totalitarian theocratic political ideology, it is not a religion. It has not been a religion since 622 AD.” He also informed supporters at one town hall that jihad “is not a perversion” of the Koran—“they’re doing exactly what this book says.” Once he arrived in Congress, he singled out Representative Keith Ellison—one of two Muslim colleagues—as someone that “really does represent the antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established.”
But West has rarely returned to the topic of the incident in Iraq that ended his military career since being elected to office. For the same reason his campaign now believes an arrest will hurt Murphy, it’s not going to be helpful to remind voters in the general election that he was charged with assault by the US Army and nearly court-martialed.
But Friday’s ad may have opened the door to that topic. Murphy’s campaign immediately responded by pointing out the episode and that West’s military career wasn’t so “honorable” after all. That’s an attack that could get more play in the weeks ahead—but either way, there’s no doubt this is becoming one of the ugliest and most brutal congressional races in the country.
UPDATE (10/2): Indeed, West's military career is now a full-fledged campaign issue. The Murphy campaign hit the airwaves today with this spot, which focuses entirely on the incident in Iraq:
For more nasty politics, read George Zornick on the Massachusetts senate race.