In a democracy, even writing the word assassination in a positive context is a repugnant activity. However, three things are very clear when examining the history of assassination in democracies: first, democracy does not end with an assassination. Second, America is sufficiently resilient to treat the act of assassination as another form of government change not an abnormal process, and some democracies might even prefer political violence to voting. Third, the political assassination many times ushered in a period of change that countered the previous political direction.
Lets get the first ugly truth out of the way. Americans accept assassination as a form of change. In America’s short history—only 230 years and 45 presidents—the reality is staggering. Four presidents have been assassinated while in office, one president was shot and survived, seven presidents have been shot at or in the case of George W Bush had a grenade thrown at him, and four presidents had creditable threats disrupted. Two potential presidential candidates—George Wallace and Robert Kennedy—were killed or wounded as they rose to power and challenged the political power structure and one survived a political assassination attempt—Theodore Roosevelt—and would go on to be president.
This is not ancient history. Two of the presidents with the most attempts on their lives are Clinton and Obama with four each. The total number of assassinations, attempted assassinations, and credibly thwarted attempts is over 21 out of 45 presidents. In other words, the American people attempted to change the political process with violence nearly half as many times as they peacefully elected a president.
Americans believe in political violence. A fast historical search of political assassinations in the United States revealed the names of over 50 high-level politicians assassinated in office to include Louisiana’s Huey Long and George Moscone and Harvey Milk. This is not even counting the politicians wounded like Representatives Gifford and Scalise in recent history.
For comparison, the United Kingdom, another long-term democracy has had one Prime Minister assassinated in the same period—Spenser Perceval in 1812 and none in modern history. The only possible conclusion is that political assassination is not abhorrent; instead, it is steeped in the political psyche of America. America’s political assassinations do not lead to a revolution like other countries. American assassinations are not a prelude to a military coup, nor a suspension of the democracy process. No, they are followed by a peaceful election.
The only possible conclusion is that Americans see political violence—perhaps violence in general—as part of the political discussion with shared space with the voting process. Many times America’s mass killings resemble political statements as in the Charleston church killings and the Pulse nightclub and the commentary comes closer to a political discussion than an exploration of mental health issues that might drive a killer.
If terrorism is defined as a violent act designed to influence a political process, then the only possible conclusion is that America’s core political foundation is built on terrorism and not elections. And this terrorism has been normalized in America like no other democracy on earth.
Therefore, Americans view political assassination as a natural political process. However, it is important to note that political assassinations live in a bifurcated space (until now); on one hand illegal and punishable by death and on the other hand a cultural norm. As then candidate Trump famously said, “I could shoot someone (perhaps a political foe) on Fifth Avenue and get away with it”, his supporters chanted USA USA. Since the Justice Department has ruled that presidents can not be indicted then this would make political assassination an acceptable American act if done by those with privilege and power.
The Second Proof: Political Assassination Is More Effective than Elections
America’s most trusted ally in the Middle East—Israel–is another democracy that has found the value of political assassination. In 1995, Israel had a Prime Minister dedicated to resolving the Israeli Palestinian issues. Yitzhak Rabin had been elected in 1992 on peace platform and during his tenure signed the ground-breaking Oslo Accords and Jordan Peace Pact.
In November 1995, a right wing Israeli student assassinated Yitzhak Rabin. This was immediately followed by a series of suicide bombings—blamed on Hamas but never proven—which turned the Israeli mood away from the peace accords especially when a up and coming right-wing politician name Netanyahu fanned the flames of discord. Without Rabin to provide a passionate defense of peace, Netanyahu turned Israel to the right and what has become over twenty years of increased tension and constant war.
The political assassination of Rabin—even though indisputably done by an Israeli not an Arab—opened the eyes of Israelis to Netanyahu’s unopposed view that peace was not possible and what could not be done by a democratic election was accomplished by assassination.
A guest editorial by Jonathan Swift.