Sorry, Mark, but killing Bush is a joke too far

I dislike publicly having to take a colleague to task, but I was dismayed a fortnight ago when the New Statesman columnist Mark Thomas called for the killing of President Bush. I knew, and am sure that the overwhelming majority of NS readers knew, that he did so in jest and was trying to make a serious political point. But, laying aside the tastelessness of calling for anyone's death - even in jest - Mark's tongue-in-cheek campaign reveals the extent to which Britain and America now live on different planets.

In Britain, his "bounty" for Bush's head is jokey fodder for Radio 4's Today programme or the London Evening Standard. But if the NS were an American publication - and you can forget free speech or freedom of the press when it comes to this kind of thing - Mark would have been committing a felony under USC 18, Section 871, which rules that anybody disseminating "any letter, paper, writing, print, missive, or document containing any threat to take the life of . . . the President of the United States" is liable for up to five years' imprisonment. And in the present climate here, you can bet your bottom dollar that US secret servicemen would take Mark's threat deadly seriously, and give him the shock of his life: every year, they secretly investigate 1,500 threats to kill the president, and are given huge rein over who they detain.

If he was not then put under arrest or interned without trial (as, lest we forget, hundreds now are on unspecified charges), Mark would need police protection, such would be the anger here. The NS would become a pariah, shunned like the Observer was in 1956 when it failed to support the British government over Suez, and would be ringingly denounced by politicians from across the political spectrum; from enjoying its current steep rise in circulation, NS readership would instead start to plunge. And it would be farewell, Mark, as far as his writing again for a mainstream US publication in the foreseeable future was concerned.

Why? Even before 11 September, the US president had one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Then, statistically, he stood a one-in-ten chance of being killed while in office; and since 11 September, we can reasonably presume, the likelihood for Bush has risen rather than receded. Four of 43 presidents have been assassinated (Lincoln in 1865, Garfield in 1881, McKinley in 1901 and JFK in 1963) and one was shot and badly wounded (Reagan in 1981). Five more, most recently Ford in 1975, have escaped assassination attempts. The first President Bush, after he left office, narrowly avoided being assassinated in Kuwait in 1993, in what was perhaps the first major anti-American operation by al-Qaeda; Bill Clinton, in reprisal, launched some cruise missiles at Afghanistan and Sudan.

Those of us living in the US face only a one in 13,530 chance of being shot dead - so we can see why these starkly horrifying statistics mean that threats of any kind to kill the US president are considered no laughing matter here. But more than that, the very idea touches a peculiarly deeply embedded American nerve: because the US president is also head of state and the presidency a central pillar of the US constitution, any kind of perceived threat to a president is instinctively seen as something that endangers the very nation itself.

So even if a "threat" of the kind made by Mark Thomas is known to be jocular, very few Americans will smile. If you throw in the derision for the man and his office that Mark also conveys, it merely rubs salt into a deep emotional wound; if there is one lesson Americans have found hard to assimilate since 11 September, it is that they are not universally loved and admired by the rest of the world.

And here we come to a central strand of the American collective subconscious: the belief that America is not just God's own country, but also has a manifest destiny, the divine bestowal of uniquely American notions of democracy, freedom and capitalism. That very phrase "manifest destiny" was first coined in 1845 by the US diplomat John Louis O'Sullivan; in those days, Britain was the world superpower, but modern America was expanding ever westwards, taking all of California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Washington, Idaho, Oregon (as well as parts of Montana, Colorado and Wyoming) from the indigenous American peoples in a supposedly glorious sweep during the one-term presidency of James Polk (1845-49).

A century and a half later, the US has not expanded its geographical borders as much as the likes of O'Sullivan and Polk anticipated - but it has become the world's only superpower, dominating the globe militarily, economically and culturally. In the view of many Americans, that sense of manifest destiny has thus finally been vindicated. It is no coincidence that every American banknote still proclaims "In God We Trust" - and that every US president ends practically every speech and broadcast with the automatic "God Bless America", an invocation of specialness that Americans take for granted, but one that still grates on the ears of so much of the rest of the world.

As, I suspect, it does on Mark's. But to Americans, their president is the personification of their manifest destiny and divinely ordained superiority; and that is why threats to their president's well-being become so painful and threatening to them. For the rest of this century, Americans are going to have to learn the painful lesson that, despite their superpowerdom, they can be as vulnerable as the rest of us, and no more special. And because of that, NS columnists should not be making their lives more painful or exploiting that pain for supposedly satirical purposes. Sorry, Mark, old boy - but that's how it is.