Fifteen years ago, Limbaugh made a spectacle of a 21-year-old as retribution for her calling out the the U.S. government's ineptitude in dealing with the Katrina crisis.
“Look at the evacuations from Katrina. We didn’t expect to be getting out any time soon.”
This was the quote that gave me my first 15 minutes of “CNN fame” (or at least what felt like it). Little did I know, Rush Limbaugh was listening and intent on extending my notoriety for many more weeks.
At 21, I was a rising senior at Pace University studying abroad in Lebanon in an Arabic-language immersion program. This coincided with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 2006, which garnered a lot of international media attention. The U.S. media focused on the Americans who were being evacuated from Lebanon. I was interviewed on American Morning by Soledad O’Brien about my experience exiting Beirut aboard a Norwegian ship and asked whether or not I had thought the United States was going to send help sooner, to which I replied, “Look at the evacuations from Katrina. We didn’t expect to be getting out any time soon.”
This quote enraged Limbaugh who took it upon himself to make an example of me on his nationally syndicated radio show. He was eager to push back against charges from leading Democrats that the Bush administration was fumbling the Lebanon evacuation just as it had failed a year before to properly respond to Hurricane Katrina, leaving thousands of Black New Orleans residents stranded for days on their rooftops. To his thinking, Katrina wasn’t a tragedy that presented lessons to be learned but a “race card” used by liberals to rile up Blacks against Republicans and in a mid-term election year no less.
For my Katrina reference, I was denounced as a spoiled “ingrate.” To Limbaugh and his army of dittoheads, I was a clueless coed, a liberal damsel-in-distress who had traipsed off to a foreign land, got herself in a tight spot and was too self-absorbed to appreciate the Navy SEALs who had belatedly tried to come to the rescue. Instead of gnawing once more on the old bones of D.C. Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, Limbaugh’s fans had fresh young meat to tear into: Me.
Katrina wasn’t a tragedy that presented lessons to be learned but a “race card” used by liberals to rile up Blacks against Republicans and in a mid-term election year no less.
Limbaugh’s words galvanized his listeners, several of whom doxxed me on rightwing online chat groups, releasing my school information and phone numbers, home phone number, home address, and email addresses. Learning of my involvement with the Campus Antiwar Network and a staging of The Vagina Monologues at my school further incited the haters.
When Limbaugh died in February of cancer at the age of 70, both The New York Times and The Washington Post both delicately referred to him as a “radio provocateur” in their initial obituary headlines. A more accurate term might be “media terrorist,” “bombastic bigot” or “pioneering propagandist” of the kind of fake news and conspiracy theories that are now endemic to our social discourse.
Following the discussion of me on his July 19, 2006, show, I received non-stop death threats by phone and email for a month including to my mom’s home phone and to my personal cell phone. These callers made it clear they knew where I lived and went to school and threatened to kill me either at home or at school. They threatened both my paraplegic, wheelchair-bound mother and me with rape and sexual violence in order to “teach me a lesson.” There were threats to torture and kill my pet cat. To be extra vigilant, my mom had to keep the cat primarily inside. The threats continued into the beginning of the fall semester when someone called Pace claimed to have a gun, so the university tightened security at my dorm.
The threats were generally anonymous, though I still can recall an email from a woman in Pennsylvania describing how she brought her children into her living room to do a homeschool lesson on me as an example of what they should never become. There were, of course, several lonely white men who insisted I had inside information on Osama Bin Laden and that they would put me on trial for treason. There were many comments about my body and weight.
I had daily panic attacks. I couldn’t work and struggled to focus on my studies. I contemplated dropping out of school in my senior year, or at least transferring to a place where “they” couldn’t find me. Most days I was scared to leave the house. Nobody around me quite knew how to handle what was happening, so it was met with a lot of shame, especially because I had put my mother at such risk. I was told to toughen up — that if I wanted to dish it out, I’d have to be able to take it (because, of course, a 21-year-old college student has the same amount of power as Rush Limbaugh and it’s an even playing field … ). Some people thought it was “cool” and a “badge of honor.” I contemplated joining the Army to prove I was a “good American” and I contemplated suicide.
In the years to follow, I did a lot of work in therapy to reclaim how I view myself. But I engaged in a lot of self-destructive behavior as well. Much of it still manifests in extreme anxiety, imposter syndrome, and general fear of verbalizing my opinions — or not taking credit for my work — which I have to constantly keep in check, even now.
I received non-stop death threats by phone and email for a month including to my mom’s home phone and to my personal cell phone.
I didn’t know there was a term for what happened to me until nearly 15 years later when I started working on my PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center and my ITP class was discussing doxxing. I tentatively raised my hand and said I was doxxed by Rush Limbaugh and the room fell silent. After sharing my experience many others have contacted me expressing similar stories and backlash. For the past year, I have listened to other women’s stories, all of whom have elements that are similar to mine. They talk about experiencing the same emotions I did when it happened and living with the fear and shame and constant anxiety. I have read numerous articles that discuss what to do in the event that you are doxxed. They provide what I imagine could be helpful resources to cancel social media accounts, access to public information, etc. However, a social media presence is necessary to my line of work as a theatre director, filmmaker, and performer, as it is to many others at this juncture. Erasing yourself is not an answer to combatting a culture of online violence.
I see doxxing as a systemic issue and part of the international epidemic of violence against women. It cannot be seen as separate from the offline violence that women endure. The violence women experience online is part of a larger culture of violence against women and should be addressed as such. In November 2017, Amnesty International conducted a survey on internet violence and found that a third of women in the United States experience violence online in the form of harassment and doxxing. I have known many public scholars, artists and thinkers who take extended breaks from social media because of the regular violence they face and the impact it has on their families. This can only be addressed through systemic change and collective efforts by communities, institutions and governments.
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