Why assassination remains a fool’s errand
Assassination! The word itself repels most Americans — It sounds totalitarian, fanatic, vicious and violent. For most, it conjures up the horrific spectacle of a presidential assassination. We have been there too often.
Our history haunts us. Four American presidents have been assassinated with another twelve attempted or foiled attempts against incumbent presidents, stretching from Andrew Jackson in the 19th century to Barack Obama in the 21st.
Five of these attempts were close calls during which the president could have died. Another two presidents, (Zachary Taylor and Warren G. Harding) were widely believed to have been poisoned, but persuasive evidence is lacking in both cases. Altogether, more than one in every three presidents has been the victim of assassination or attempted assassination.
Recently, a Missouri state legislator, State Sen. Maria ChappelleNadal, discovered how repugnant the specter of assassination could be when she posted to her Facebook account, “I hope Trump is assassinated.” Public outcry was immediate and almost uniformly excoriating. She was removed from all her legislative committee posts amid strident calls for her resignation or expulsion from office.
Our bloody history doubtlessly influences our swift denunciation of anyone foolish enough to call down violence against a president. And that is any president, no matter how unpopular, controversial or despised that president may be. It’s a moral judgment, but also a political judgment, that removing a president by other than constitutional remedies are un-American, anti-democratic and wrong.
But, American aversion to political assassination should also be rooted in the compelling lesson from history that even “successful” assassinations usually don’t achieve the assassin’s goals.
Historian Miles Hudson’s book Assassination uses the ideas of sociologist Alfred Hirschman to explain why assassinations miscarry. Hirschman, who considered political assassinations a “fool’s errand,” believed assassination had three possible outcomes – all bad: “perversity,” “futility,” or “jeopardy.”
Perversity outcomes yield near opposite results from those intended by the assassin. In world history the assassinations of Julius Caesar, Mahatma Gandhi, and Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand are significant examples: Caesar’s killing, intended to save the Roman Republic, instead led to its end.
American history is rich in examples of assassins’ penchant for bringing about what they most hoped to avoid. Of the four presidents assassinated - (Abraham Lincoln (1865) James Garfield (1881), William McKinley (1901) and John F. Kennedy (1963) Lincoln and Garfield are prominent cases.
Lincoln is the quintessential example. John Booth’s killing of Lincoln was intended to help the South obtain a more advantageous peace; instead, it removed a president who intended to treat the former enemy with dignity and compassion, replacing him with a weak president unable to stop the Radical Republicans from imposing a tougher reconstruction on the defeated Confederacy. In assassinating Lincoln, Booth struck the South a blow greater than any of its enemies.
Hirschman’s characterization of assassination as a “fool’s errand” rings true. And the fruit of a fool is always failure. Assassinations don’t work and assassins don’t succeed. That’s the clear lesson across the thousand of assassins and attempted assassination in recorded history.
Remembering this seems like a good idea! G. Terry Madonna is professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Michael Young is a former professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State University and managing partner of Michael Young Strategic Research.