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John Harwood's reflections on a lifetime of seeing American political violence

  • The United States has a long history of political violence — one that's deeper than in most advanced democracies.
  • Wednesday's shooting in Alexandria, Virginia, is made more shocking by the number of elected officials threatened.
A U.S. Capitol Police officer stands guard in front of the U.S. Capitol Building, on June 14, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Getty Images
A U.S. Capitol Police officer stands guard in front of the U.S. Capitol Building, on June 14, 2017 in Washington, DC.

More than many baby boomers, I became aware of politics through the prism of violence.

I was a 7-year-old second-grader in suburban Washington when the principal sent us home after President John F. Kennedy was shot. My mom was crying. My dad, a political reporter, was covering the story.

As a sixth-grade paperboy five years later, I delivered the front-page news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Dad was covering that too.

Eight weeks after King's death, my siblings and I woke up to news that Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and people near him, had been shot in California. Since he was covering Kennedy's presidential campaign for The Washington Post, Dad was often very near Kennedy. He called to tell us he was OK, though he had been steps away when the shooting happened and comforted the wounded candidate on the floor.

Four years later, in 1972, I was a high school volunteer in a campaign office when news came over the radio that Alabama Gov. George Wallace had been shot a few miles away in Laurel, Maryland. He'd been campaigning in that state's Democratic primary for president.

Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala. meets with reporters in Alexandria, Va., Wednesday, June 14, 2017.
Cliff Owen | AP
Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala. meets with reporters in Alexandria, Va., Wednesday, June 14, 2017.

In 1981, I was a young reporter in Washington when President Ronald Reagan and press secretary James Brady, among others, were shot at the Washington Hilton hotel. I joined the media crowd at George Washington University Hospital reporting updates on the president's condition.

An attack made more alarming by the number of U.S. lawmakers it endangered

Political violence is common in underdeveloped, nondemocratic countries; much less so in advanced Western democracies. But for reasons of history and culture, the United States suffers higher levels of violence than most advanced democracies.

That violence has typically focused on political figures with the highest profiles. Four U.S. presidents have been assassinated; several others, including Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Gerald Ford, have been targeted in failed attempts.

Police investigate a shooting scene after a gunman opened fire on Republican members of Congress during a baseball practice near Washington in Alexandria, Virginia, June 14, 2017.
Joshua Roberts | Reuters
Police investigate a shooting scene after a gunman opened fire on Republican members of Congress during a baseball practice near Washington in Alexandria, Virginia, June 14, 2017.

Members of Congress, who are far less conspicuous, have rarely been targeted. Today's attack on Republican lawmakers was especially alarming for the large number of them in the line of fire.

Those members, gathered to practice for a charity baseball game, were spared only by the bravery of two U.S. Capitol Police officers on hand to protect House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. Like other members of the congressional leadership, Scalise, who was wounded in the attack, travels with a security detail.

'Strong and tough'

That was not the case for Gabrielle Giffords, the Tucson, Arizona, lawmaker shot at a constituent event in 2011. Six others died; Giffords survived grievous, disabling wounds and now leads an effort to curb gun violence.

A few days ago, the U.S. Navy commissioned a new warship named for her — "strong and tough, just like her crew," Giffords declared at the ceremony.

Hearing those words was all the more poignant for me to hear since one of my daughters spent a year working as her personal assistant following the shooting.

"My heart is with my former colleagues, their families and staff, and the U.S. Capitol Police," Giffords said via Twitter. "Public servants and heroes, today and every day."