Constitutional violence?

Precisely because of America's free speech tradition, violent attacks on elected officials are very rare.
Christopher Blunt | Jan 13 2011 | comment  



Minute's Silence for the victims.

A minute's silence for the victims. Photo: AP / J. Scott Applewhite 

In the hours following the horrific shooting at Gabrielle Giffords’ “Congress on Your Corner” event in Arizona, the rush to explain the perpetrator’s motivations began. Giffords had recently survived a hotly-contested re-election challenge from a Tea Party-backed candidate who was her ideological mirror image. In the absence of hard information about the shooter, it might be natural to wonder if he had been discouraged at the election outcome or otherwise inspired by the Tea Party’s anti-Washington rhetoric. Indeed, many on the political left ─ including the local county sheriff ─ speculated aloud in just that manner.

Although the investigation is ongoing, the principal suspect is actually a registered independent who was so disconnected from politics that he didn’t bother to vote in the 2010 congressional election. By all accounts, Jared Lee Loughner appears to be an isolated, deeply mentally ill young man suffering from multiple psychoses.

As analysts continue to debate the reasons for the Arizona events, a potentially far more interesting question has remained largely unasked: Why are violent attacks on American elected officials so exceedingly rare? In the 50 years leading up to the current attack, there had been just seven assassination attempts against six federal elected officials or office-seekers: Presidents John Kennedy, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, Presidential candidate (and former governor) George Wallace, Senator Robert Kennedy, and Congressman Leo Ryan.

Of the seven attackers, four were clearly mentally unbalanced or motivated largely by reasons other than political ideology. Arthur Bremer, who attempted to assassinate George Wallace in 1972, was reportedly an anti-social loner desperate to demonstrate his manhood. John Hinkley’s attack on President Reagan was intended to impress the actress Jodie Foster. Representative Ryan, a Democrat from San Francisco, was gunned down by members of the Jonestown cult in Guyana during a 1978 investigation. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, one of President Ford’s two 1975 attackers, said she was acting to secure “clean air, healthy water and respect for creatures and creation,” but she was also a member of Charles Manson’s cult. Only three of the attackers (Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, and Sara Jane More) seemed substantially motivated by radical political views that were at variance with their targets’.

Why have there been so few such attacks, particularly on members of Congress? One obvious explanation, as writer Matt Glassman points out, is that eliminating a single congressman is seldom enough to tip the chamber’s control from one party to another. And even if it was, that chamber comprises only half of the legislative branch. Furthermore, most House district boundaries are drawn in such a partisan manner that any special election winner would likely be ideologically similar to the person assassinated. No rational person would risk execution or life imprisonment for such a small potential payoff.

That said, the balance of power in the U.S. Senate has occasionally been narrow enough that a handful of vacancies could swing partisan control. Why have we never seen targeted assassinations of senators representing states with governors who would appoint replacements from the opposite party?

Simply posing this question seems absurd; the notion of “targeted assassination” is alien to the American experience. Even in periods of history far more vitriolic and partisan than the current one, America has experienced few ideologically-motivated assaults against officeholders. With the exception of Robert Kennedy, who is something of a special case, we have to go back to the Huey Long assassination of 1935 to find a sitting U.S. Senator who was gunned down by a political opponent for political reasons. And yet, assassinations such as Long’s are just what we are asked to expect in a climate of vitriolic political rhetoric.

That such ideologically-motivated assassinations have been so few and far between speaks volumes not only about the values and character of the American people, but also about the robustness with which American political institutions channel passions into constructive outlets for ideological disagreements. Foremost among these institutions are the fair and frequent elections that allow citizens to remove officeholders non-violently. But even between elections, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Americans enjoy the ability to speak their minds freely, to engage in the most rigorous political debates, and to express opinions in nearly whatever terms they desire, without fear of retribution from the government. (Commonsensical limits such as fighting words, libel, and shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre are among the only restrictions.) A citizenry which can channel its ideological passions and differences into the constructive outlet of unrestricted debate does not murder its elected representatives.

And yet this feature of the American experiment is exactly what some are now proposing to limit. Over the weekend, Democratic Congressman Robert Brady of Pennsylvania said he plans to introduce legislation prohibiting “language or symbols that could be perceived as threatening or inciting violence against a federal official or member of Congress.” It is of course already illegal to threaten or incite violence against any person. What makes Brady’s proposal potentially so insidious is the highly subjective ─ and highly elastic ─ standard of “could be perceived as”. Which authority will be charged with doing the perceiving? How will a potential speaker know in advance the prism through which that authority will perceive his words? How many potential speakers will conclude it is safer to remain silent than to risk criminal penalties for being “misperceived”?

The brilliance of the First Amendment is precisely that it enables citizens to be as critical as we wish of our elected representatives, and as ardent as we wish in our political speech. Because Americans are allowed to express our political opinions fervently, we have a non-violent outlet for our passions. We can air our grievances without fear of being arrested for using “language or symbols” that an arbitrary authority perceives as “threatening.”

Although Brady’s legislation purports to stem violence against federal officials, its real effect is to perpetrate violence against the Constitution. With free speech guarantees ─ and the outlet for passionate political views they provide ─ eviscerated, there would be far fewer alternatives to more destructive behaviours. And the ultimate result would likely be more violent attacks against federal officials, not fewer.

Christopher Blunt holds a doctorate in political science and is President of Overbrook Research, a public opinion consulting practice in Michigan.

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