Threats Against Congress Rise, But Danger Is Nothing New

01/09/2011 12:54 pm 12:54:12 | Updated May 25, 2011

Anger and politics a dangerous mix

The horrific shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and the killing of six others, including a respected federal judge, outside a Tucson Safeway is not the first time that a member of Congress has faced violent threat or attack.

But while history affords many examples of attacks on legislators, today's inflamed political environment may put them particularly at risk. Congress has been the target of public disdain recently with approval ratings at multi-decade lows of 13%.

While it is too early to say what the exact motive for the Tucson massacre might have been, a man whom sources named as a suspect apparently posted a mix of bizarre ramblings interspersed with rhetoric commonly found in the racist and anti-government extremist community.

It has been disturbing to watch recent incidents of vandalism, gunshots, threats, and politically loaded rhetoric that can help create a charged atmosphere in which representatives may be viewed as appropriate targets for aggression and scapegoating -- particularly among those who are unstable and angry....[LINK TO FULL CNN COMMENTARY]

Partial List of Threats, Violence and Death Involving Members of Congress Since 1850

  • May 22, 1856: South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks severely beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner over the head with a thick gold tipped cane in the Senate chambers after the Massachusetts senator insulted South Carolina's senator (and Brooks' uncle) over slavery. While Wilson got his reelection coffers filled as a result of his outburst, South Carolinians sent Brooks dozens of canes to replace the one he split over Sumner's head.
    • September 8, 1935: U.S. Senator Huey P. Long was mortally wounded after being shot by Dr. Carl Weiss, the son-in-law of a political opponent. Weiss was killed by bodyguards at the scene, while Long died two days later.

  • March 1, 1954: Five Congressmen; Alvin M. Bentley (R-Michigan), Clifford Davis (D-Tennessee), Ben F. Jensen (R-Iowa), George Hyde Fallon (D-Maryland) and Kenneth A. Roberts (D-Alabama) were shot and wounded by Puerto Rican nationalists in the visitor's gallery. After a commutation of their sentences by President Eisenhower, all were released in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. The most famous of the shooters, Lolita LeBron died last August in Puerto Rico.
  • June 5, 1968: U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was fatally injured in Los Angeles immediately following his victory in the California Democratic primary. Kennedy died the next day and his killer Sirhan Sirhan remains in prison for life in California.
  • 1976: New York City Congressman Edward I. Koch, and future mayor, was allegedly targeted in an assassination plot out of Uruguay after he suggested that American aid to the South American nation be suspended because of misconduct. Koch, who later would become mayor of New York, was serving on a Congressional subcommittee involved in formulating foreign aid.
  • November 17, 1978: California Democrat Leo Ryan in Guyana on an official investigation ofJim Jones People's Temple cult becomes the first Congressman killed in the line of duty after he and four others, including NBC News reporter Don Harris are gunned down in an attack at a desolate airstrip. Following the shooting the largest non-natural loss of civilian lives takes place when 900 die in a forced mass suicide in nearby Jonestown.
  • March 14, 1980: Former U.S. Congressman Allard Lowenstein, 51, was shot to death in New York by a paranoid mentally ill former college student who had known the congressman while he was employed at Stanford prior to his congressional service. No congressperson has been murdered since then.
  • September 1, 1983: Georgia Democratic Congressman Larry McDonald was killed after Korean Airlines Flight 007 enroute to South Korea was shot down by Russian fighters killing all on board after veering into Soviet airspace. His death has been the subject of conspiracy theories.
  • July 24, 1998: Russell Eugene Weston, a mentally ill paranoid shooter with a distrust of government killed two U.S. Capitol Police officers as he pushed his way toward Congressional officers. He is still institutionalized and has never stood trial.
  • November 2000: Alex Curtis, a young San Diego white supremacist was charged with targeting Congressman Robert Filner and others in a campaign of intimidation and harassment. He later pled guilty to related charges.
  • 2001: Two members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), Earl Krugel and leader Irv Rubin, were arrested for, among other things, planning to bomb the office of Arab-American California Republican Congressman Darryl Issa. Issa, Both Rubin, who was awaiting trail and Krugel, who plead to lesser offenses, died while incarcerated. Issa, still serves in Congress and is a vigorous critic of President Obama
    • September 11, 2001: United Flight 93 crashes in western Pennsylvania killing all onboard, during a thwarted hijacking. Initial reports suggest the U.S. Capitol was the target, although later reports say the target was the White House.

  • April 2010: U.S. Senator Patty Murray was the subject of this telephone threat, "There are many people out there that want you dead. Just remember that as you are politicing [sic] for your reelection. It only takes one piece of lead... Kill the ... senator! Kill the ... senator! I'll donate the lead. Now that you've passed your healthcare bill, let the violence begin." In the last year other senators and congress persons including Rep. Giffords were targeted for property attacks or threats including gunshots at offices. The senate reports bona fide threats against Senators increased in 2010 to 49, up from 29 in the previous year.
  • January 8, 2011: Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, 40, is critically wounded and six others, including federal district court Judge John Roll, were killed in a shooting spree in Tuscon at a meet and greet for constituents by Jared Lee Loughner, an apparently deranged gunman who interspersed extremist rhetoric in his online ramblings.

Source: Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, California State University, San Bernardino