Columns » The Provocateur

The night they missed

The attack at Charlie Hebdo reminds us fanatics are everywhere

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The truth is that when the bullet whizzed probably millimeters by my left ear, I had no idea that someone had just taken a shot at me. I'm a city boy, born in Philadelphia. My parents moved down to Charlotte when I was young. Guns (or the sound of one barely missing blowing my head off) were simply not a part of my experience.

But that's what happened around 10:45 p.m. one cool fall night in Charlotte 17 years ago as I was getting out of my car outside the entrance to the studios of WBTV and WBT, where I did a late-night talk show. Almost instantly, and bizarrely, a huge number of birds flew up, rustling the branches at once, and seemed to glue themselves to the side of the building.

Before I had a chance to process what had just happened, a few members of WBTV's team came flying out the door, one of them with a remote camera. I remember one saying, in a loud voice, repeatedly, "Jerry, Jerry — did someone just shoot at you? Do we need to go on-air live?"

Well, needless to say, that was a wake-up call, when it finally hit me that someone had taken a shot at me, right before the beginning of my show. One shot.

Maybe it was a fluke. Or maybe someone knew my routine (which never varied before a show), missed, and then took off. It's not so far-fetched to think someone would take such drastic measures to scare me — or worse.

For many years, I'd been getting hate mail from Charlotte residents for the things I said on the air. And because WBT's night-time signal is so strong and reached (our slogan boasted "from Cuba to Canada"), the mail came from everywhere. Not to mention I was also writing unabashedly here in Creative Loafing.

To say the responses I received were nasty — and threatening — is an understatement. One whole batch, much of which I still have, was variously addressed to someone who hated Jews and wrote to "Jerry Kline, Despiser," or "Deceived Jerry Klein," or "Mr? Jerry Kline, Child of the Devil." I turned over another batch of letters to the FBI as potentially having come from the Army of God, a right-wing group that Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Olympics Games bomber, might have been have involved with.

Then there was the batch from the white supremacist group Aryan Nation, who was responsible for killing, proudly, a liberal Jewish talk-show host in Denver in 1984. And maybe, topping it off, was local Christian leader Rev. Joe Chambers, who iterated to his mailing list of 10,000 strong that I was the Anti-Christ.

When it dawned on me that someone might have tried to kill me, and could still be out there in the shadows, I decided there was no way I was going to be the "Breaking News" headline on the 11 p.m. show, As politely as possible, I refused WBTV's offer to "go live" that night. I somehow pulled myself together and went on to do my three-hour show as if nothing had happened. No one, besides the station's management and those closest to me, ever knew.

But I went through hell for a while. Should I continue to risk my life, saying what I thought, night after night? Or let those people shut me up? And what about my family? I had two young sons — was it right to put them in a position of having to deal with worrying about someone killing their dad — or them?

Eventually, the answer was clear: If I went off the air or stopped writing, "those" people would have won — and that wasn't the lesson I could live with having taught my boys.

Of course, all of this came back in vivid color last week when I heard about the killings of journalists and cartoonists at a French satirical newspaper. I'm still here, saying exactly what I think needs to be said, no matter the consequences. In fact, because of the potential consequences.

I'm sure there are people who think what happened in France could never happen in the Carolinas. Well, here's a bulletin, folks: Murder associated with religious fanatics has been, and is, a reality around here, too.

You should see some of the communication that comes through to me one way or another. But I'm still turning a deaf ear to those inappropriate attacks now as I was then. I'm certainly not worthy, but as proudly as I can proclaim it: Je Suis Charlie Hebdo.

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