How Threats Against Lawmakers Could Distort the Political Landscape for Years



The U.S. Capitol behind security fencing in Washington, D.C., January 25, 2021, photo by Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Reuters

The U.S. Capitol behind security fencing in Washington, D.C., January 25, 2021

Photo by Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Reuters

by Brian Michael Jenkins

January 25, 2021

Vandals attack the homes of congressional leaders. Armed protesters barge into statehouses. And most dramatically, hundreds of extremists invaded the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Some damaged the building and the offices of members. Others walked off with “souvenirs.” Some reportedly hunted for the vice president and the speaker of the House. Hiding out or behind barricaded doors, members of Congress feared for their lives, urging the president to call off his supporters and begging for reinforcements to rescue them from their fellow Americans. Never before in the nation's history has such an event occurred.

With the installation of a new government in Washington, it's important to recognize that American politicians continue to face incessant threats. Historians have noted that recent political violence may be no worse than that witnessed throughout U.S. history—the latest periodic spasm. Indeed, most presidents since the Civil War have been the subjects of assassination plots or attempts, while judges and IRS agents have repeatedly been targeted by criminals. Threats against leaders imposing quarantines, preventing travel, or shutting down commerce have been features of plagues going back to the Middle Ages.…

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Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior adviser to the president of the nonpartisan, nonprofit RAND Corporation, and directs the National Transportation Security Center at the Mineta Transportation Institute. He began researching terrorism for RAND in 1972.

This commentary originally appeared on NBC News THINK on January 25, 2021. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.