Why as­sas­si­na­tion re­mains a fool’s er­rand

The Kutztown Area Patriot - - OPINION -

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.

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