The Accelerating Threat of the Political Assassination
When Shinzo Abe was slain weeks ago by an assailant wielding a homemade firearm, it sent shockwaves rippling around Japan and beyond, prompting a bewildered public to ask how such a disaster could be possible and, more importantly, what would happen in the aftermath. The unthinkable murder of a popular former G7 leader will lead to both a reassessment of personal security details the world over, as well as a reconsideration of whether the costs of honorable public service are worth paying. Last month’s attempt on the life of New York congressman and gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin suggests we may be entering a similarly dangerous period in the United States, where elected or appointed officials and political candidates face a heightened risk.
The pattern of terrorism in recent years has arguably been trending in that direction, especially in the United States. In June 2017, a far-left extremist attempted to shoot Republican members of Congress at a practice for the annual Congressional Baseball Game. In 2018, during the last midterm election, a wave of mail bombs targeted senior Democratic Party officials and liberal public figures. Months later, a Coast Guardsman was arrested for plotting to assassinate a number of prominent Democratic politicians. In 2020, law enforcement disrupted a plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan — with two of the defendants pleading guilty even though a jury later acquitted two other plotters. And on Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol rioters bayed for the hanging of Vice President Mike Pence.
This year has seen a further escalation in cases. In June, a retired circuit court judge was murdered in Wisconsin, in what that state’s attorney general described as a politically motivated crime. That same month, an armed man was arrested outside Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s home before he could carry out an assassination plan. “Remove some people from the supreme court,” the attacker had told an online contact, describing how he planned to protect Roe v. Wade from being overturned. “I could get at least one, which would change the votes for decades to come, and I am shooting for 3.” He had also Googled “assassin skills,” “assassin equipment,” and “assassinations.” Another man was arrested outside the home of Congressional Progressive Caucus chairwoman Pramila Jayapal for threatening to kill her. Recent reporting by the Guardian found that “U.S. Capitol police reported 9,625 threats and directions of interest (meaning concerning actions or statements) against members of Congress last year, compared to 3,939 such instances in 2017.” Nor are elected officials the only targets, as the Iranian government’s plot to assassinate John Bolton, who served as one of Trump’s national security advisers, demonstrates.
In Britain, meanwhile, two members of parliament have tragically been killed in attacks since 2016: Jo Cox, killed by a far-right extremist days before the Brexit vote, and David Amess, stabbed to death by a jihadist in 2021. A recent counterterrorism investigation resulted in Treason Act charges of “discharging or aiming firearms, or throwing or using any offensive matter or weapon, with intent to injure or alarm her Majesty” against an assailant who scaled the walls of Windsor Castle on Christmas Day 2021. That same year Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, was killed by mercenaries specifically hired to make room for a new leader. And in 2020, a Canadian man, angered by financial losses incurred as a result of government-imposed COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, armed himself as part of an abortive bid to seize Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The 2018 execution by Saudi Arabian state agents of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and this month’s Iran-inspired attempt on the life of author Salman Rushdie, underscore the reemergence of political assassination as a means to silence government apologists and critics alike—also highlighting that it remains an attractive option for state sponsors. And this past weekend’s attempted car-bomb murder of prominent Russian ultra-nationalist philosopher and close Putin-confidant, Alexander Dugin, which killed his daughter Darya, demonstrated that this devastating tactic can also play a role far from the battlefield in time of war.
Assassins have long believed that their vicious acts would change the course of history. The murder of the heir to the Habsburg throne in 1914 achieved that aim with destructive consequences: igniting the first global war ever and killing nearly 20 million. “[W]hile assassination has generally failed to direct political change into predetermined channels,” Harvard University historian Franklin Ford argued in his seminal work, Political Murder, “it has repeatedly demonstrated the capacity for affecting, often in the most dramatic fashion, situations which, in the absence of lethal violence, might conceivably have developed very differently.” The lives claimed by assassins in the twentieth century of political leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi, Jordan’s King Abdullah, John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert in 1968, Martin Luther King that same year, and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, among others, are testament to how different the course of history might have been had they been allowed to eventually die of natural causes.
As in those cases, today’s growing wave of assassination attempts has crossed ideologies. Certain adherents of the far left have been responsible for attempts on the Republican baseball practice and more recently Justice Kavanaugh. But the far-right is also active in this space and was responsible for the most recent successful high-level political assassination in the country: the killing of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, state senator of South Carolina, at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015. Jihadists often place prominent figures in their crosshairs, as demonstrated by a recently disrupted plot against George W. Bush. Even the more nascent male supremacist movement has its targets: A so-called “men’s rights activist” attacked the home of U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas in July 2020, killing her son.
The emerging trend is due in no small part to the reemergence of so-called “accelerationism” as a distinct violent extremist strategy. For extremists seeking to sow chaos and speed up some cataclysmic societal collapse, high-profile politicians provide an attractive target, as symbols of the mainstream liberal political order. “We need to kill the HVT’s,” one poster wrote on Telegram in August 2019, using a military acronym for high-value target. “When a popular HVT is gunned down, it inspires hope and dreams.” The COVID pandemic then added fuel to the fire as public officials were blamed and then threatened for the lockdowns and enforced quarantines. Targets ranged from prominent health officials like cerebral National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci to Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, as well as many other lower-level state officials responsible for the imposition of these extraordinary public health measures. Fauci was forced into constant law enforcement protection because of threats against his life — which was only a prelude to the death threats and serial harassment that now routinely are directed against local and state election officials.
Political assassinations are uniquely suited to tear at the country’s social fabric. For starters, they force opposing politicians and voters into an apparently awkward dilemma between condemning hatred and violence and seeming to renege on their own political positions — a situation Democrats did not handle particularly well after the attempt on Kavanaugh’s life. As Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco stated in June in response to that attempted attack, “We can’t come together on this topic without acknowledging and condemning the appalling rise in violence that we have seen from a range of ideologies directed at public officials.” But they also risk dissuading good people, across the political spectrum, from running for public office and participating in a vibrant American democracy. Indeed, perhaps the most damning element of the January 6 commission hearings has been the broadcasting of the threats issued against everyday public servants, such as Georgia’s election workers. The Department of Justice recently announced it has opened around 110 federal criminal investigations into “contacts reported as hostile or harassing by the election community.” “A common refrain I hear from my members is that nobody is going to take this seriously until something bad happens, and we are all braced for the worst,” the National Association of State Election Directors executive director warned in recent written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Until recently, this was not a field you went into thinking it could cost you your life.”
Heightening the threat yet further is a growing tendency for assailants to use untraceable or even homemade weaponry as part of violent plots — as seen in the assassination of Abe, in which the assassin used a fully homemade shotgun to evade Japan’s stringent gun laws. The crude attack was reminiscent of failed drone attacks against political leaders in Venezuela and Iraq and may be indicative of an emerging era in which more widely accessible tools are weaponized in these strikes against individuals — again, regardless of the motivating ideology. Cruder technology lowers the barriers to entry for attackers, allowing even untrained or unprepared extremists — such as Zeldin’s assailant, who, despite being an Army veteran, used a personal protection device disguised as a cat-shaped keychain in his assault — to attempt serious plots. As Colin Clarke and Joseph Shelzi write, “The proliferation of emerging personal technologies like drones, 3-D-printed weapons, and other innovations will likely open the door for more attacks against high-profile figures in the future.”
We live in an age of heightened political tensions, when political decisions are often seen as existential crises, and where elections, therefore, carry perceived life-or-death stakes. With a midterm around the corner, a former president under investigation, and major upheavals occurring on hot-button issues such as abortion and gun control, extremists inclined to violence will be increasingly likely to lash out. The situation is only made more serious by the seeming consent a faction of the political right has offered to would-be assassins, including a Florida State House candidate who was recently expelled from Twitter for writing, “Under my plan, all Floridians will have permission to shoot FBI, IRS, ATF and all other feds on sight! Let freedom ring!” The conceit that fuels these would-be assassins’ fanaticism and feeds their egos poses a considerable and growing danger to civil servants and political figures across the political spectrum — at a time when mass shootings at schools, shopping malls, cinemas, and other public venues have already become an increasingly frequent occurrence. “The system was blinking red,” Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet famously told the 9/11 Commission describing the months before September 2001 — a sentiment which feels pertinent again now.
Deterring any such attacks is paramount. Enhanced personal protection details — both visible and covert — are a critical last line of defense, one boosted after the Zeldin assassination attempt by the House sergeant at arms’ announcement that House lawmakers will receive an extra $10,000 for home security. More serious thought needs to be devoted to an in-depth defense that includes harsher prison sentences and enhanced preventive detention — the release of Zeldin’s assailant without bail due to New York state’s well-intentioned but in this case fatuous bail reforms is a case in point, although the attacker was later arrested and held on federal charges. Identifying potential assassins and taking threats articulated on social media and elsewhere seriously is another. Laws preventing easy and widespread public access over the internet to home addresses and the enforcement of state and local ordinances limiting constitutionally-protected protests and demonstrations in residential areas are also needed if future tragedies are to be avoided at this especially febrile and emotional time. Finally, more and better training of law enforcement and aggressive prosecution of threats that attempt to hide behind First Amendment protections of free speech are urgently required.
Political assassinations have indeed changed the course of history — and most often not for the better. Now, COVID lockdowns, explosive new political phenomena which demonize political opponents as evil, and divisive elections cast in existential terms have left a charred political landscape in which those leaders still standing are particularly vulnerable. At a time when the system is again “blinking red,” we must ensure that we take this threat seriously and are doing everything possible to deter any future American assassin through a combination of prudently robust defenses and proactive law enforcement engagement with this dire potentiality.
Bruce Hoffman is the senior fellow for counterterrorism & homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown University. Jacob Ware is a research associate for counterterrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations and an adjunct professor at Georgetown.