A Chilling Assassination in Wisconsin

Could the killing of a retired judge in Wisconsin signal more attacks to come?

A photo illustration of a judge's gavel, layered over with red stripes
The Atlantic; Bettmann / Getty

Any individual murder in the United States right now is unlikely to make much of an impression—not when elderly Black people at a grocery store or young children at school are being gunned down in large groups. But the Friday murder of a retired judge in Wisconsin is ominous enough to give some pause.

Although little is known so far, authorities say they believe that the killing was politically motivated. The victim, Jack Roemer, 68, had served on the local circuit court. Police said he was found tied to a chair and shot at his home. (The alleged assassin was found with a self-inflicted wound and hospitalized.) What relationship, if any, the two men had is not clear—“It appears to be related to the judicial system,” Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul said in a news conference—but the suspect also had a list of other potential targets, which news outlets have reported to include Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat; Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, also a Democrat; and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican.

Given McConnell’s presence, that list doesn’t lend itself to straightforward ideological interpretation. More information might shed some light on what agenda, if any, the shooter had that linked all of the targets, or if there were others. Regardless, the incident is chilling for what it might augur. Assassination remains rare in the United States, but in the past it has spiked at times of acute national tension, including following the Civil War, around the turn of the 20th century, and in the ’60s. In a country as divided and angry as the United States is today, it’s surprising that more assassinations haven’t occurred. Perhaps this one is a sign of what’s to come.

As uncommon as high-profile assassinations are, they tend to leave a deep mark. The killings of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr. are pivotal moments in American history. The Ku Klux Klan committed a string of politically motivated murders during Reconstruction that aimed to hasten its end, and Presidents James Garfield and William McKinley were killed in 1881 and 1901, respectively. (McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, survived a shooting in 1912, and his distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 dodged a bullet that instead killed the mayor of Chicago.) Not since the wounding of Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley Jr. in 1981 has a president been in serious jeopardy, but U.S. political figures are regular subjects of threats, attempts, and occasionally murder.

Assassination is understudied and undertheorized, the scholar Arie Perliger observed in 2015. But the academic literature that does exist seems to point to many of the hallmarks of current-day America as warning signs. Perliger noted that countries that see “strong polarization and fragmentation” and “lack consensual political ethos and homogeneous populations (in terms of the national and ethnic landscape)” are more prone to assassinations.

A government committee, convened after RFK’s and King’s assassinations and led by Milton Eisenhower, a college administrator and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s younger brother, found in 1969 that not just division but major societal shifts lead to assassinations: “Levels of political violence appear to crest during periods of accelerated social change.” The panel also found some specific risk factors in American society. “Recent years have seen a number of movements that justify violence as a legitimate tactic in seeking political ends,” the committee’s report stated. “There has been frequent use of rhetoric vilifying institutions and individuals … In addition, some segments of the population view our democratic government as ineffectual in meeting the needs of its people.”

The Eisenhower commission was able to conclude brightly that “the likelihood of assassination should decrease as the level of political unrest within the country diminishes.” This message is less comforting today. A Washington Post/University of Maryland poll earlier this year found that one in three Americans, including 40 percent of Republicans, believes violence against the government is sometimes justified. Former President Donald Trump and others have waged a concerted campaign against government institutions. They have also argued, in sometimes overtly fascist tones, that democracy has failed, voters’ will must be overturned, and only a strongman can fix what ails the country.

Whenever violence breaks out, those who have fostered anger, justified violence, and attacked institutions tend to disclaim any responsibility, often blaming the perpetrator’s apparent mental illness. One of the more troubling findings of the Eisenhower commission, though, is that moments of national strife produce assassinations even though many killers aren’t personally ideologically motivated. (“Most assassinations in the United States have been the products of individual passion or derangement,” the commission noted.)

Maybe the United States has only gotten lucky that there haven’t been more assassinations already. Security around presidents and other politicians is much tighter than it was in the ’60s. That hasn’t kept some people from trying to kill politicians. President Barack Obama was the subject of multiple assassination threats. In 2017, a domestic terrorist fueled by hatred for Republicans shot and injured four people, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who were practicing for the Congressional Baseball Game. In 2018, Cesar Sayoc, a Trump superfan who lawyers said had untreated mental illness, mailed pipe bombs to a variety of people he’d identified as Trump enemies. In 2020, a disgruntled lawyer fueled by racism and sexism tried to kill a federal judge in New Jersey, killing her son instead. Later in 2020, several men were arrested for plotting to kill Whitmer. And on January 6, 2021, some members of the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol declared that they wanted to kill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence. (Upon hearing that some rioters chanted “Hang Mike Pence,” Trump reportedly remarked that maybe Pence should be hanged.)

Taken together, these incidents suggest that the relative scarcity of assassinations in recent years might not be a result of a lack of would-be assassins but rather a streak of good luck. As long as the nation remains viciously divided, its luck might not hold out forever.