In a week infamous for neo-Nazi/White Supremacist marches, it’s noteworthy that the second-most reprehensible thing of the week was a Facebook comment by Missouri state senator Maria Nicole Chappelle-Nadal. A friend of hers, as part of an ongoing thread, commented (presumably jokingly), “Now I’ll probably get a visit from the Secret Service.” Chappelle-Nadal replied, “No. I will. I hope Trump is assassinated.” That is an improper sentiment coming from anyone but it’s especially inappropriate from an elected official. It was gratifying to see that other elected officials from Missouri, including U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill and Congressman William Lacy Clay, were among the national outcry for her resignation.
There’s just so much wrong with this.
First of all, this is the United States, where we elect our representatives democratically. It’s not some banana republic where regimes change hands based on political coups. It’s not the Star Trek mirror universe, in which officers are promoted by eliminating their superiors. Under our system, murder is wrong and it gets one sent to prison. If you don’t like an elected official, the way to defeat him is at the polls.
Even if one lacks the most basic moral compass necessary to know that assassination is wrong, a simple analysis should tell one that it’s not an effective political tool. For starters, it backfires.
This has always been the case. Remember Gedaliah ben Achikam, for whose assassination we fast on the day after Rosh Hashana? In II Kings 25, we are told how Nebuchadnezzar appointed Gedaliah as governor over the small number of Jews remaining in Israel. Gedaliah encouraged potential rebels to be faithful to their Babylonian conquerors. Seen by some as a puppet, Gedaliah was assassinated but the result was much worse. The Jews, who had been secure in their own land under Babylonian rule, were forced to flee to Egypt to avoid the repercussions of killing the king’s appointed representative.
Assassinations have continued to yield ironic consequences throughout history. Cassius and Brutus headed the plot to assassinate Julius Caesar with the altruistic goal of saving the Republic. Both conspirators ended up committing suicide when confronted by an unexpected Octavius-Antonius alliance, leading to the end of the Republic they had sought to preserve.
Lincoln was not a popular president. He barely won reelection; only half of a percentage point separated Lincoln from his opponent. Rep. Henry Winter Davis called Lincoln’s reelection “the subordination of disgust to the necessities of a crisis.” Regarding Lincoln’s now-famous Gettysburg Address, the Chicago Times said that “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat dishwatery utterances of a man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”
So what happened to turn Lincoln into the greatest of American presidents?
John Wilkes Booth happened.
Booth was a Confederate sympathizer and the prospect of freed slaves becoming citizens was intolerable to him. What better thing to do than to shoot the president? Aside from turning Lincoln into an icon, Booth virtually assured that the thing to which he objected would come to pass. The Radical Republicans in Congress wanted to teach the South a lesson. Lincoln was able to rein in their punitive measures; his successor, Andrew Johnson, was not. This led to the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (“All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside…”), the subsequent Reconstruction Act, and the 15th amendment (“the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color or previous conditions of servitude…”).
One more: Right-leaning Yigal Amir disagreed with the way left-leaning Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin wanted to pursue peace, the Oslo Accords in particular due to the attendant Israeli withdrawals from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. In the aftermath of Rabin’s assassination, Kings of Israel Square was renamed Rabin Square, Rabin’s yahrtzeit was designated a national memorial day, and Amir was sentenced to life in prison. Politically, Rabin became known as a “prince of peace,” Israeli public opinion moved to the left and Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, implemented Oslo II, leading to even more West Bank withdrawals.
In short, assassins rarely get the results they desire.
It’s bad enough if an assassin is an actor or a “lone gunman.” If a politician is advocating for assassination, it’s simply poor self-preservation. After all, if Senator Chappelle-Nadal would justify killing President Trump because she doesn’t like what he’s doing, what would she have her constituents or opponents do if they’re displeased with her performance? One can only infer.
King David knew this. He had been appointed king by God through the prophet Samuel. King Saul, the incumbent monarch, sought to kill David in order to preserve his dynasty. David had more than one opportunity to kill Saul, which certainly would have been justifiable as self-defense, but he refused to take advantage of these situations. Aside from David’s personal righteousness and his respect for King Saul, he was also no doubt aware that taking the crown through assassination sets a terrible precedent. Conversely, many of the later kings (in the aptly-named Book of Kings) did assume the throne through assassination, and they typically vacated it the same way.
True, “I hope so-and-so is assassinated” is not exactly a call to arms but neither is “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Nevertheless, when King Henry II said that about the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170, his subordinates took the hint and acted upon it. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean crying “fire” in a crowded theater and it doesn’t mean tacitly approving of acts of violence against political rivals.
There are lots of reasons not to tolerate calls to assassinate our political leaders, no matter how much we may disagree with them. It’s a bad precedent. It tends to backfire. But first and foremost, because it’s murder and murder is wrong. It’s just sad that we actually have to point that out.