Source: Commercial and Financial Chronicle
Source type: newspaper
Document type: editorial
Document title: “The Attack on the President”
City of publication: New York, New York
Date of publication: 14 September 1901
Volume number: 73
Issue number: 1890
|“The Attack on the President.” Commercial and Financial Chronicle 14 Sept. 1901 v73n1890: pp. 527-28.|
|McKinley assassination (public response); anarchism (dealing with); anarchism (laws against); McKinley assassination (public response: anarchists).|
|Humbert I; Peter Kropotkin; Leo Tolstoy.|
|The bracketed phrase in the third paragraph appears as given in the original text.|
The Attack on the President
There is something very fine in the spontaneous
and unanimous outburst of indignation at such an act as that of last week, Friday,
and of personal good will towards the victim of the attack. That an effort at
cowardly assassination should be denounced by every right-minded citizen was
to be expected; but there was much more than this in the past week’s popular
demonstration. Americans have been said to be “good haters” in their politics,
by which was meant that their political differences are strong and their personal
feeling regarding leaders of parties which they oppose unusually keen. But above
all controversy over actions and policies stands belief in the majesty of a
high elective office and determination that its security shall be inviolable.
One needed only to listen to the conversation along the streets, from highest
to lowest among the citizens, to learn how deeply rooted this feeling is throughout
the community. It goes, we are glad to believe, much further than reprobation
of the act of an assassin.
This identification of such a public office with the dignity of the nation and community itself, is one of the strongest safeguards of our institutions. It is not alone that Anglo-Saxon sentiment makes impossible such a view of the ruler as obtains in more than one of the Spanish-American republics, whose history has been largely made up of factional conspiracy to drive an incumbent forcibly out of office. With the conception of the Chief Magistracy which governs every American mind, an episode such as that of the Auteuil race-track a year or two ago is inconceivable. Equally inconceivable is the feeling, which exists under many monarchical governments, that a social class is embodied and represented in the fortunate family which holds the royal title. The President in office is invested directly with the majesty and prerogative of the people. An attack upon him, beyond the legitimate lines of criticism of policies, is an attack upon the people. The instinctive recognition of this fact was the most striking part of the last week’s manifestation of public feeling.
That there should have been a good many hasty and thoughtless propositions for dealing with the evil in press and public discussion of last week’s events is not surprising under the circumstances. We do not believe that serious second thought will revive the impulsive earlier suggestions that either the guaranty of free speech or the prohibition of unusual punishments should be removed from our fundamental law. We do not attach particular importance  to the proposal that assault on the Chief of State be defined as treason. In the first place, treason is already defined in the Constitution as something different. According to that instrument, treason “shall consist only in levying war against them [the United States] or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” This definition could not be enlarged except by slow process of Constitutional Amendment. In the second place, nothing, in our judgment, could be gained by such alteration of the law which cannot be gained in other ways.
The three main evils which call for swift correction, where correction is possible, are the lightness of punishment now inflicted on a political assassin who fails of his final purpose; the possibility of incendiary anarchist meetings or of distribution of incendiary anarchist literature, and the permitting of dangerous anarchists to enter the United States at all.
The two last-mentioned evils appear to us to be covered already by existing laws. If the police of any city in the United States had been able to lay their hands on a body of agitators who could be proved to have instigated the attack upon the President, no one doubts that the law would have taken them promptly in hand. This is not all. There is a law on the statute books under which the wretched creature may be punished who was unlucky enough to publish incitements to such violence on the very day of the Buffalo calamity. But the trouble may be that the laws have not been rigidly enough enforced. It certainly ought not to have been possible that the assassin of King Humbert should have arranged for his crime, with the co-operation of a body of his associates, in an American city. A gang of burglars could hardly have done the same without discovery by a vigilant police. It will be demanded hereafter that these dangerous political agitators shall be known, watched and shadowed with the same persistence as is employed in guarding property from conspiracy.
It is not so easy to insist on the infallible application of the Exclusion law. A foreign assassin, or a proved accomplice of an assassin, would not be admitted to this country. His case, indeed, even if he had already been admitted, would be covered by our extradition laws and treaties. It has been proposed on other occasions to exclude all foreigners who have taught anarchistic doctrines. But here the difficulty of proper discrimination becomes extremely great. Citizens have the right to maintain what private theories of government they will, and immigrants cannot justly be excluded for what citizens are freely allowed to do. It would of course be wholly out of the question to accept the view of a foreign government as to the dangerous character of the applicant for admission. Russia thus classes Prince Kropotkin and Count Tolstoi, neither of whom this country would dream of shutting out. If our immigration laws are to be at all amended for this purpose, it must be done with the utmost caution.
But that the penalty for an overt attack on high public officers, whether the attack ends fatally or not, ought to be made far more severe, we fully believe. As matters stand, the criminal law of the States, which governs cases of this sort, regards the Governor of a State or the President of the United States merely as it regards other citizens. Its penalties for murder or for atrocious assault are prescribed with a view of the ordinary nature and motive of the crime. Sudden passion, great provocation, insane jealousy, are, in the great majority of cases, the real causes of an act of the sort, and the law is framed with that fact kept in mind. If the victim does not die, the assailant commonly escapes with a few years of imprisonment. If he pleads mental weakness he may escape entirely.
But the motives which we have enumerated have no part in such outrages as that of a week ago. More than this, assaults on elected rulers appear to us to pass beyond the mere legal classification of crimes against the person. They are direct attacks on the State and on society—as distinct from ordinary assault or murder as high treason is from ordinary conspiracy against private interests—and the seriousness of the crime, taken along with the necessary absence of motives or impulses which may condone attacks on a private individual, render it, in our judgment, wholly proper that crimes of this sort should be separately provided for and should be visited, whether successful or unsuccessful, with the severest penalties recognized by the law.
The reassuring fact, in this part of the situation, is the manner in which even habitual agitators have joined in denouncing the atrocious act of last week, Friday. More than one of those who have hitherto been classed as notorious anarchists have spoken freely and forcibly, both of the wrongfulness and of the folly of the crime. There has, so far as we know, been no exception to this rule, and it seems to us very important that this is so. The encouragement to fresh attempts of this nature has hitherto always come chiefly from the approval, whether openly expressed or suggested through sullen silence, by the associates of the criminal. Repressive law is not likely ever to put an end entirely to such acts; it has not done so in a dozen centuries of organized European Government. So long as the assassin is a hero or a martyr, even to a small group of sympathizers, exactly so long will political assassination be repeated. It is something to have reached a moment when even the family and associates of the criminal unite in denouncing him, not only as a criminal, but as a coward and a fool.