Remember: America Is a Uniquely Violent Country

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One of the many bad repercussions of this incident is that it will certainly intensify the already wildly high security around the Congress and basically all government buildings around Washington, DC. We talk a lot about excessive security, security theater and so forth. All of those things are true. It’s one of the most unfortunate things about American public life. And yet this incident is an example that America is a deeply violent country, not least of which a country in which political violence is a persistent theme of public life.

I saw a few photographs yesterday tied to the new or changing leadership in France and Britain. It demonstrated again what most of us know: security around European heads of state and heads of government is just nothing compared to the security surrounding American presidents. It is not remotely the same. It’s an awful thing that all US presidents are surrounded by such a massive bubble of security.

And yet, look at the history.

Four US Presidents out of forty-five have been murdered by assassins while in office – Lincoln (1865), Garfield (1881), McKinley (1901) and Kennedy (1963). Three of those are clustered in a 36 year period more than a century ago. But Ronald Reagan almost certainly would have died of his wounds had he been President in the medical era when Garfield and McKinley were shot and died. If you add in Presidents who survived serious assassination attempts (Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, only among the most serious) the list gets considerably longer. If you compare the United States to even remotely comparable countries not in the midst of civil wars, there’s simply nothing comparable to this record – not Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Italy. There’s just nothing comparable. Of all those countries I just listed I don’t think there are four assassinations over the two-plus centuries of American history.

When I was walking to work this morning I saw a prominent journalist tweet about how much we take for granted the fact that politics gets litigated in this country by politics and ballots rather than violence. This is unquestionably the case. It is a theme I’ve been hitting on again and again over the last year – both within this country and the larger world we live in. It is fragile and it is a precious gift. And yet we shouldn’t forget that in many respects violence in public life – and in this case I mean as it affects people in public business, elected officials and so forth – is endemic to the United States. There was a shooting at the Capitol in the Capitol Visitor Center just last year. The existence of the Capitol Visitor Center traces back to a 1998 incident in which a gunman stormed through a Capitol security checkpoint and shot and killed two Capitol Police officers. Of course we all remember the shooting of Gabby Giffords and other in January 2011.

I trust I’ve made my point. The ability to conduct politics without violence is precious. But don’t forget. This is a persistent factor in American public life.


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