by Lynn Thompson
As a child in Armenia, Henry Gasparian witnessed firsthand the horrors of Nazi Germany. Two uncles were killed, his father wounded and a brother starved to death during the German invasion and occupation of the Soviet Union. So when Gasparian, 70, of Edmonds, saw a poster of President Obama with a Hitler mustache near the entrance to the Edmonds Farmers Market on Sept. 5, he admits that his reaction was "personal and emotional."
He tried to grab the fliers being passed out by supporters of Lyndon LaRouche, a perennial presidential candidate who has likened Obama's health-care proposals to the Nazi extermination of Jews and other "undesirables."
Two young LaRouche supporters told police that Gasparian repeatedly pushed them and grabbed one of their arms. Gasparian said it was they who first pushed him.
Now Gasparian is charged with two counts of fourth-degree assault in Edmonds Municipal Court for what he describes as an attempt by "an old man to say you cannot insult the president with this outrageous campaign."
The Edmonds incident echoed similar incidents across the country over the past few months. LaRouche supporters and others have disrupted town-hall meetings on health care, including most famously, the young woman who asked U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) in August why he supported a "Nazi health-care plan." Frank replied, "On what planet do you spend most of your time?"
The LaRouche Political Action Committee Web site says "Stop Obama's Nazi Health Plan" and encourages visitors to download the Obama-as-Hitler poster and take it to town-hall meetings.
Locally, LaRouche supporters have set up tables outside of post offices, at the Evergreen and Puyallup fairs and other public venues.
The local LaRouche activists declined to comment on the Edmonds incident and referred questions to the national office. Nancy Spannaus, a spokeswoman for the LaRouche PAC, defended the Obama-as-Hitler posters saying they are an "honest emblem of what the administration policy represents."
She said the Obama plan is premised on the idea that some people cost too much to keep alive, a charge the Obama administration and health-care advocates say is untrue.
But the heightened rhetoric and extreme views surrounding the public debate are raising alarm among political observers and groups that monitor hate speech and threats against minorities.
Hilary Bernstein, Pacific Northwest community director of the Anti-Defamation League, a national civil-rights organization, worries that the language first propagated by LaRouche backers, who espouse an extremist political point of view, is now entering the mainstream debate.
"What used to be so fringe is making its way into talk radio, blogs, YouTube and other news sources that people see as legitimate," she said.
David Domke, a UW professor who specializes in political communication, said that while people have been saying terrible things about politicians since the country's beginnings, "the intensity and depth of feeling today seems to be at a dangerous point."
"We have conversations now in the same way we go to war. We have to demonize the other person," Domke said.
Local political leaders are also dismayed by the likening of Obama to Hitler. Jim Kellett, chair of the Snohomish County Republican Party, saw the LaRouche activists outside the Everett Post Office this summer. Kellett, who has toured a concentration camp in Germany and visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., said, "If they understood what the Holocaust was about, it's really unconscionable to make that kind of comparison."
He said he's told people opposed to the health-care proposals "to be civil and come armed with the facts."
Henry Gasparian said that he had seen news reports that included the images of Obama as Hitler, but wasn't prepared when he saw the poster outside the crowded Edmonds market.
The police report says that Gasparian yelled at the LaRouche activists from his car, "flipped them off" and repeatedly yelled obscenities. The activists told police that he returned on foot and assaulted them without provocation.
Gasparian left the scene after the confrontation, but said he drove past the table about two hours later. When he saw a police officer nearby, he said, he stopped and questioned him about the activists' right to use the Nazi imagery.
The LaRouche workers saw Gasparian and identified him to the officer as the man who earlier had assaulted them. That's when Gasparian was handcuffed and arrested. He said three or four patrol cars surrounded the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Main Street, "as if they had caught Bin Laden."
Aramis Gasparian, 29, bailed his father out of jail eight hours later. He said his father had never had more than a speeding ticket before this incident.
"It's shocking, to say the least. He's 70 years old," the son said.
Gasparian immigrated from Armenia in 1993, the same year both his parents died. A classically trained musician with degrees in English and journalism, he settled in the Seattle area and found jobs in sales until health concerns forced him to retire.
A week after his arrest, Gasparian was still emotional. He said he recalled his miserable childhood in Armenia, where, because of the war, some days he had no more to eat than a small piece of sugar or bread.
His father, drafted by the Soviets to fight the Nazis when Gasparian was just 1 year old, returned home six years later, unrecognizable, injured both physically and mentally.
Historical accounts say that a half-million Armenians fought for the Soviets against the Germans. Half were killed, including Gasparian's two uncles.
"I saw Hitler's soldiers. I saw swastikas every day. To call Obama stupid, even criminal — OK, that's politics. But Hitler? It's hurting to anyone no matter who is president," he said.