Pamela Geller's War
Pamela Geller believes America is at war. Not a figurative one or an ideological one, but a literal one that calls for guns and missiles and planes and tanks and troops. One that has and will cause the deaths of innocents, of men, women, children, and, eventually, of nations.
She believes we are in a worldwide war between good and evil itself. She believes we are losing.
She believes, truly believes, that this evil—Islam—is upon our shores and that the time it takes for Islam to overrun what she calls the greatest country in the history of mankind can be measured not in decades or years but in months. She believes the re-election of President Barack Obama on November 6 has all but assured it.
Geller, 54, one of the most polarizing women in the country, is but a foot soldier in this war—a cog, but a large one that grows larger every day. When I meet her at an upscale coffee shop blocks away from her tony midtown apartment, she is in full combat gear.
"You're a kid!" she cries when I reach out to shake her hand. Her Long Island accent, thick from her childhood, is distracting from the start. I'm not a kid, but I decide it doesn't matter, because she's absolutely giddy. Geller's mouth is parted in a silent laugh, and she raises both of her hands like she doesn't know whether to hug me or touch my face. I feel like a baby Labrador. It's not a terrible feeling.
We buy coffee and take a table near the back of the shop.
There's a reason why Pamela Geller's name is almost invariably preceded by "The Beautiful" at her speaking events. Today, she's wearing a chic leather jacket over a form-fitting black turtleneck, and her trademark diamond-encrusted "Love" charm is hanging from a necklace. She's wearing loose curls, tawny locks falling over her shoulder. It's almost December, and even though she posts 10 to 15 times a day from home on her wildly successful blog, atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com, her golden skin is still sun-kissed, and her large light-brown eyes peer from behind impossible eyelashes that rest upon her sculpted cheekbones whenever she blinks or winks or bats her eyes at the kid 30 years her junior.
When she speaks, she does so passionately, leaning in and lowering her voice, then pushing back in her chair and pointing with both hands. She never breaks eye contact, even to take a sip from her lip-gloss-smudged coffee lid. When we agree on a point or I amuse her with a quip or turn of phrase, she applauds. She's charming, magnetic even. I decide I like her, and then I decide that I hope she likes me.
She's viewed by "leftists," as she calls her critics, as a monster, the animalistic id of the racist, paranoid right, a supremacist leader of arguably the most extreme wing in the Tea Party, who knowingly interacts with bigots and xenophobes. She's the face, literally, of the Southern Poverty Law Center's national anti-Muslim hate-group page. Of the six New York City anti-Muslim groups listed on the page, she founded three of them herself (Stop the Islamization of America, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, and her blog, Atlas Shrugs). Most recently, she has drawn ire for a series of public-transit ads she has run in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Most read: "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad."
Geller fights her war on two fronts. The first is against Islam itself, which she calls "the most radical and extreme ideology on the face of the earth." The second is against Barack Obama. Geller, a secular Jew, is a pro-choice, pro-marriage-equality Manhattanite raised by liberal parents. But when it comes to the president, Geller holds nothing back. She has devoted the past four years of her life to fighting his re-election, because the war is already here, and we've already lost if the most powerful man on the planet is, as she calls him, "an Islamophiliac": a lover of Islam.
She helped launch the birther movement before the president was even elected. And in a 2009 blog post, she wrote that Obama had slept with a crack whore and posted nude photos of Obama's mother, supposedly taken in 1960 by alleged black communist Frank Marshall Davis. They turned out to be fakes. Keith Olbermann has twice named her Worst Person in the World. In 2010, she led protests against the Islamic community center near Ground Zero and published a book with her openly anti-Muslim partner in crime, Robert Spencer, called The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration's War on America. She stops short of calling Obama a Muslim in public, though she tells me, "He clearly favors Islam."
Looking at her now, though, she doesn't seem like a monster. I know it's all for show, of course, her beauty and her charm. They're her main weapons in the war, along with her website, and how she has been able to navigate and thrive in the far-right, old-white-man-dominated world of the Tea Party and the American anti-Islam movement. When you're a symbol, appearances matter. And her very appearance, the fact that someone like her—a pretty, secular, socially liberal New Yorker—would be on the front lines of the war, adds credibility to the cause.
"They say I'm a racist, Islamophobic, anti-Muslim bigot," she complains to me, about me, about the liberal media.
"So where would you consider yourself on that spectrum?" I start.
"What I've always said," she explains, bristling. "I'm anti-jihad." Jihad is Arabic for "struggle," though Muslim extremists and their enemies alike have taken its usage in the Koran to mean "holy war."
"They've never described me that way. Ever. They've never described me as anti-jihad. They say I'm anti-Muslim. I'm not anti-Muslim.
"I don't see how anyone could say I'm anti-Muslim," she says. "I love Muslims."
Geller's war started on a Tuesday. It was beautiful outside, so, naturally, Geller, a rich housewife and a mother to four daughters, was on the beach on Long Island's South Shore. She was staring to the west, toward Manhattan. A skyscraper was burning.
She ran inside her house and turned on the television. Anchors were reporting that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. She ran back outside, mouthing the same thing millions of Americans were echoing across the country. "What moronic . . ." Then she saw the second plane hit. That's when she knew what was happening, when Geller's world fell apart.
Before 9/11, Geller's life was uneventful. She was the quintessential New York trophy wife: She grew up traveling to and from the city, moved there after dropping out of Hofstra, worked in the city, married rich, had kids, and retired to Long Island to raise her children. She passed the days reading Details and studying up on music, art, and fashion. A few years later, she would have been perfect material for The Real Housewives. (She would receive close to $10 million after divorcing her husband in 2007 and collecting life insurance from his death in 2008.)
The terrorist attacks traumatized her.
"My premise was false," Geller says. In a single morning, America's façade of invincibility was shattered. Geller stood by, useless and helpless, as nearly 3,000 innocents were slaughtered. She was so out of touch she'd never heard of Osama bin Laden before.
Two planes hit the towers, and one hit the Pentagon. A fourth, United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco, was hijacked as well and steered toward Washington, D.C. But the passengers fought the jihadi terrorists, and the plane crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Forty-four people died, including the four hijackers, but the passengers saved hundreds of lives in the process, maybe more.
"The idea that those passengers on that plane all got together—that was a distinctly American response," Geller tells me. "They didn't need anyone to save them. They tried to save themselves."
"Do you think that was distinctly American?" I ask.
"Yes," she says. "I do."
"You don't think someone in"—I pick a random country—"Brazil or something would have done the same?"
"I don't know," Geller says. "But to me, it's an exemplar of American exceptionalism. It's not an elitist thing. American exceptionalism is individual exceptionalism. It's the exaltation of the individual. If you give an individual the freedom to be free, this is what they will do.
"America was the first moral government in the history of the world based on individual rights," she says. "There were definitely mistakes made—the idea of slavery—but if you go back and read the establishment of the United States . . . the problem was you couldn't get those Southern states to go along," she says. "That's why compromise is not necessarily a good thing. Because in any compromise between good and evil, evil profits."
The 9/11 attack was the most evil thing Geller could imagine. She felt we were at war with a group of people who played by a different set of rules. Savages.
She had to do something. So she learned about Islam, jihad, and sharia, the religion's code of law. Growing up, she was largely apolitical but always championed women's rights. She was particularly disturbed by women under sharia who were treated as second-class citizens. She read about women and young girls alike being beaten, raped, murdered. But the more she studied the religion, the more social issues took a backseat to her belief that Islam itself needed to be defeated.
"All these other issues are luxuries. I mean, if you ain't got your head," she says, "what's abortion gonna do for you?"
America slowly healed, but Geller had fundamentally changed. She says she was reborn. Along with it came a visceral fear.
"It's not some jingoism," she says. "It's your country. Where you gonna go? You won't like what comes after America."
She began to read and comment on conservative blogs, especially Robert Spencer's. Spencer is an anti-Muslim author decried by many as a bigoted mudslinger. In 2004, a fellow commenter sent her a template for a blog.
"They said, 'Start blogging.' And I was like: 'Blogging? I don't know anything about blogging,'" Geller says. "Then I remembered this: 'Shut up and start writing.' That's what I did. I shut up and started writing." A self-professed capitalist, Geller named it Atlas Shrugs after Ayn Rand's book. "And I've never stopped. I've literally never taken a day off."
Her readership grew slowly, helped by her willingness to blog about news the mainstream media wasn't covering. In 2008, she published cartoons of Muhammad from a Danish newspaper. Her readership increased tenfold, she says, because when the cartoons made international headlines, her blog was one of the only websites to run them.
It was also helped along because, a couple of times, she video-blogged while in a bikini.
Geller's activism didn't begin until 2007, when she teamed up with Spencer and others to attempt to close Khalil Gibran International Academy, a Brooklyn dual-language middle school that planned to teach Arabic. The coalition saw it as a front to indoctrinate preteens in Islam. They didn't close the school, but they were able to pressure the would-be school principal to resign. It was a small victory, but it was a victory nonetheless.
Geller, still largely unknown, was hungry for more. She saw evidence of "creeping sharia" everywhere. She was firmly a part of the war against what she called an Islamic "world takeover." The only problem is, if you believe you're in a war—an actual war—it's easier when there's a visible enemy to fight.
Then a brown guy whose parents had the lack of foresight to name him Barack Hussein Obama ran for president of the United States. Geller finally had her enemy.
"I never said that," she tells me sharply, leaning in and lowering her voice. "They say things about me that are patently untrue."
My coffee's gone, and hers is cold. We're talking now, of course, about the first time she won Worst Person in the World, when she published, but didn't herself write, an outlandish claim that Barack Obama was Malcolm X's love child.
"Did you ever say he had sex with a crack whore?"
"I never said that, either!"
In October 2008, when it was all but a lock that America would have its first African-American president, Geller took to Atlas Shrugs. "Conventional" birth certificate birtherism had already started a year before, but no one expected what came next. One of her readers, a conspiracy theorist named Rudy Schultz, had conjured a new claim that Malcolm X had impregnated Ann Dunham, a white woman.
She posted Schultz's ludicrous theory. To date, the post has received nearly 10,000 Facebook likes and drew a firestorm. The theory took off nationally, and because of that post, she was thrust into the public eye when Olbermann named her Worst Person in the World. Geller's celebrity and readership jumped again.
"So you kind of indirectly started birtherism even though you weren't the one peddling it," I say. "Kind of, right?"
Geller looks at me, smiles coyly, and nods.
It was her most successful jab at the president early on. She hated him, feared him. She'd dedicate the next four years to smearing him at every opportunity. She teamed up with Spencer to write a book, 2010's The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration's War on America, before the president was even inaugurated.
Geller looked at Obama and saw a man who loved America less than her, who had a Muslim name and held meetings with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom she saw as savages.
Obsessed, she blogged about the president nearly every day. At one point, she wrote on her blog: "One thing is for sure: Hussein [Obama] is a Muhammadan. He's not insane . . . he wants jihad to win. That's what he is doing. Of course, to the Western mind, the rational mind, the logical mind, the American mind, that is insane."
It made juicy reading. More people subscribed. Then her popularity got another boost when a massive, right-wing grassroots movement called the Tea Party started making national news.
It started as a modest group of people who wanted to cut the deficit, balance the budget, and lower taxes. But it was sexy, and it exploded. The left reported more on the uglier fringe groups, like the birthers. Later, America would hear about the Southern evangelicals, the voter IDers, the anti-immigrationers. The Tea Party grew into a sort-of big-tent party. Geller was one of the first converts.
"It was just organic. People got up and said: 'No. No way.' And it didn't have a leadership," Geller says. "I kinda liked that about the Tea Party. Because weak people need a strong leader. Strong people don't need a strong leader."
Geller got gigs blogging for other sites. Fox News loved her. Halfway through Obama's presidency, her blog was fielding 200,000 unique visitors a month. And then plans for the Cordoba House, an Islamic community center since renamed Park51, were announced. Geller seized her opportunity.
"I thought it was deeply humiliating, wildly offensive. I didn't say they couldn't build it," she says. "I appealed to them not to build it."
Top Republicans such as Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, John McCain, and Sarah Palin spoke out against the community center, which also had a mosque. Geller teamed with Spencer and other Southern Poverty Law Center–certified hate groups to denounce the $100 million project. She went as far as to say the "Ground Zero Mega-Mosque"—as she liked to call it—was a "victory mosque."
It earned Geller her second Worst Person in the World award. Olbermann said Geller's rhetoric helped stoke a paranoia that resulted in, among other things, a national spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes and a mosque firebombing in Jacksonville.
That November, she traveled to Sherman Oaks, California, to receive the Annie Taylor Award for Courage from the ultra-conservative, anti-Muslim David Horowitz Freedom Center. Spencer himself presented her with the award. "You have to understand that we're in a war," Geller said in her acceptance speech. "We are at war now. It's not coming. It's not around the corner. We're at war now. The Ground Zero Mosque is the second wave of the 9/11 attack.
"We will prevail," she promised the crowd. "We will prevail."
Eight months later, Anders Behring Breivik ignited a bomb in Oslo, Norway. He killed eight people. A few hours later, dressed as a police officer, he traveled to a children's summer camp. He pulled out a gun and slaughtered 69 teenagers.
Breivik wrote a manifesto in which he stated the purpose of the killings: to prevent a Muslim takeover. He quoted from Geller's Atlas Shrugs. He also cited Spencer, her partner, dozens of times by name.
"O bama won," Geller's blog read on November 6. "And America, land of the free, home of the brave, died tonight."
The president had just won re-election in a landslide. The Tea Party, doomed by the rise of flawed presidential candidates such as Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann, and "Rapey Republican" congressional candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, was on life support. Park51 was still on schedule to open steps away from Ground Zero.
News outlets distanced themselves from Geller. Even Fox News, which had supported her views for years, recently backed away. In a segment on Happening Now, anchor Jenna Lee said Geller's transit ads used "controversial language so inflammatory, we're not going to show it to you."
"You don't think you're inciting hatred?" I ask her.
"No," she answers quickly.
I'm torn, because as I sit across from Geller, it's hard to compare her to the savages she wars against. Instead of guns and missiles, she uses her charm, her blog, even her beauty. But to use one's weapons effectively, as a band of jihadists did 11 years ago, you must first dehumanize the foe, rationalize that their lives are somehow worth less, because innocents are sure to get caught in the crossfire.
Geller believes her war is all but lost, but she seems anything but defeated. She's still beloved among various Tea Party charters; though she has no plans to run for office, just last week, she traveled to Florida to speak.
War is lucrative, and Geller is seeing the dividends. Last year, she published a second book, Stop the Islamization of America: A Practical Guide to the Resistance. She gets more than 1 million unique visitors to Atlas Shrugs every month, which attracts more advertising, which generates more revenue. It's money she'll use when the fighting reaches our shores.
"America's always been the one that came to the rescue. And what are you going to do when there's no one there to rescue you? So how's it going to play out? I can't tell you. But I can tell you that it's all gonna play out."
A week ago, the New York Post covered the Gaza conflict by showing a full front-page photo of young Hamas men on motorcycles dragging a suspected Israeli spy through the streets of Gaza City. "Savages!" the headline read.
Spencer, on Geller's sister blog, jihadwatch.org, posted about it.
"New York Post admits Pamela Geller is right," he wrote. "Palestinian jihadists are savages."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.