The jolt of assassination

It was like the Dutch to suspend campaigning, hold a state funeral, and drape their election posters in black in mourning for the assassinated Pim Fortuyn.

The maverick populist candidate had aspired to be the first gay prime minister. And, because a half century ago I reported from the Netherlands for The Christian Science Monitor and came to admire a tolerant and civil people, I was, like the Dutch, shaken by the murder, apparently committed by an animal- rights activist.

It struck me how rare was political violence in Holland, and Europe generally, compared with my own country. The assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand by a militant Serb in 1914 precipitated World War I.

Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme was gunned down leaving a movie in 1986. And Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro was abducted by Red Brigade terrorists in 1978 and found dead in a car trunk after refusing to negotiate with them. In 1962, gunmen in Paris attacked a motorcade carrying President Charles de Gaulle, and missed. Some of us older folk remember his cool comment as he climbed out of his car, "They really are bad shots."

American history, by contrast, is blotched with assaults on our leaders:

Four presidents killed – Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy. Four presidents survived attempts on their lives – Andrew Jackson, attacked by someone later judged to be insane; Truman, attacked by Puerto Rican nationalists; Gerald Ford, menaced twice in the same month in crowds in Sacramento and San Francisco; and Ronald Reagan, shot in 1981, while leaving a hotel in Washington after a speech. There were also attempts on President-elect Franklin Roosevelt in Miami in 1933 and presidential candidates Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and George Wallace in 1972.

Other American political figures have died from assassins' bullets – Louisiana Sen. Huey Long in 1935 and Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968, and civil rights figures like Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X.

A Web search turned up seven senators, nine representatives, 11 mayors, 17 state legislators, and 11 judges subjected to violent attack.

What is it with us?

The National Commission on Violence named by President Johnson in 1968 after the King and Robert Kennedy murders spoke of an American tradition of violence going back to frontier days. It said some comfort could be taken from the fact that assassination had not become part of our political system, as it had in the Middle East. Cold comfort indeed!

The shock that ran through Holland after the Fortuyn assassination serves to remind us how rare is political murder in the old country in contrast to our own.

• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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