The Assassination Factor

Jeff Zeleny does a piece for The New York Times on anecdotal evidence of widespread fear that Barack Obama is likely to be assassinated if nominated for (or elected to) the presidency. I've heard this worry before, and it's something that I have to say never occurred to me until I started hearing other people talk about it. You're looking, really, at two different interpretations of what went on in the 1960s. From one point of view, this is a time in which two very prominent black leaders (Martin Luther King and Malcolm X) were assassinated, as were two very prominent pro-civil rights white politicians (John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy) that should make us worry that the assassin's bullet is unusually likely to meet figures identified with racial progress.


Another way of looking at it is that there was just a kind of assassination fad in the "long sixties." Its victims included not only progressive racial leaders, but also George Wallace. Meanwhile, nothing in the pre-assassination JFK record singled him out as an especially noteworthy civil rights leader and there's no real indication that this is what Lee Harvey Oswald had in mind when he shot him. Basically during the sixties people were getting assassinated irrespective of race, while since the sixties people haven't been getting assassinated even though we've had several noteworthy black politicians.

There was, I would note, a similar assassination fad around the turn of the previous century associated with anarchism, but eventually extending out of any particular ideological niche. That's how William McKinley got killed, along with Jean Jaurès in France and a whole bunch of other political leaders. It seems plausible that one or two high-profile assassinations helps spawn copycats without there necessarily being any deep "cause" behind the whole thing. Long story short, while this account should leave us less concerned than many that Barack Obama would be shot, but more concerned that a single assassination could turn into a wave.