Jon Mark Beilue: The aftermath of assassinations

WT professor’s book examines the lasting impact of political murders.


There are a few – very few – dates that resonate in the American historical psyche: Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, landing on the moon on July 20, 1969, and 9/11 terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Certainly in the middle of those dates is another – Nov. 22, 1963.

“It’s seared forever, even for those of us who were babies or not alive yet,” said Dr. Laura Bell, assistant professor of political science at West Texas A&M University. “It’s one of the seminal events in U.S. history that will never diminish.”

It was 58 years ago, the fourth U.S. presidential assassination. John F. Kennedy was shot in a top-down limousine in Dealey Plaza in Dallas as part of a Texas tour to unite the Democratic Party prior to the 1964 election.

I was 5 years old that day. Black-and-white memories flicker. My mother taught junior high in Lubbock. There was no public school kindergarten at the time, so I was in kindergarten day care. She and Mrs. Shaver, the director, had a long conversation as I was picked up that afternoon. My mother said later she was upset how kids yelled and whooped when it was announced school was dismissed early.

That was on a Friday. The next day, as all 5-year-olds did at the time, I got up early for Saturday morning cartoons. It was the only day that cartoons were shown on the only three channels in existence.

No “Mighty Mouse” this day. It looked like the news with adult men talking. I changed the channel. More news. Last chance – still no cartoons, but I remember seeing a rifle being raised above a mass of people down a hallway. I forlornly sat on the couch in footed pajamas, trying to soak in what was happening. To a 5-year-old, no Saturday cartoons really was a national tragedy.

That might be the most famous political assassination in history. In America, it is as impactful as the murder of Abraham Lincoln a century previous. Kennedy’s death spawned a cottage industry of conspiracies, from the Mafia to the military-industrial complex, from Castro to even Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. But there’s still no concrete evidence beyond a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, a 34-year-old nondescript ex-Marine with sympathies to Russia.

Yet history and the world are full of political and terrorist assassinations with as many as 10,000 from 1977-2017. No one at WT knows that better than Bell, who has authored a book, “Targets of Terror: Contemporary Assassination.”

Her interest in assassinations was piqued while working on her doctorate in 2015 and the study of the assassination of former Lebanon prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005. His death, from a suicide truck bomb from the terrorist group Hezbollah, was the catalyst for dramatic change in Lebanon. It started the mostly peaceful Cedar Revolution that triggered the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and a more independent government without heavy Syrian influence.

“It fascinated me how one individual who was assassinated in a small Middle Eastern country could lead to this massive movement with millions in the streets,” Bell said. “I was impressed how the death of one person could lead to something that significant.”

“Targets of Terror: Contemporary Assassination” was published at the end of June. Bell took information from the global terrorism database and looked at the outcomes in assassination aftermath. What did it accomplish, if anything?

“Does an assassination make a democracy more stable or move to more authoritarian?” Bell said. “Democracies seem to remain safe regardless of the target.

“Authoritarian regimes only make up 5 percent of assassinations, and they tended to become more authoritarian after a terrorist assassination. In democracies, assassinations don’t impact much change. They remain pretty stable. In authoritarian or mixed regimes, yes, assassinations can lead to change.”

Since Kennedy, there have been three public attempts on the lives of U.S. presidents – two against Gerald Ford in 1975, and one that wounded Ronald Reagan in 1981. The assassinations and attempts in the U.S. all seemed to point to an unstable loner, and not part of a larger cause.

But the political climate in the United States in the last decade, particularly the last five, may be as heated and divided as any since the Civil War. Jan. 6 was unlike any day in this country’s history. Is the U.S. more vulnerable for another attempt?

“When there is dissatisfaction, tension and unrest within a country, yes, the likelihood increases,” Bell said. “When you have insurgent groups or disaffected citizens, there’s always the increased possibility.”

As Bell notes, security measures have been greatly enhanced since the sadly comical times of the 1960s when Kennedy slowly rode in an open-air limousine through the streets of Dallas. The age of terrorism has only added to heightened security around heads of state.

“The likelihood of a successful assassination of a top leader is greatly diminished from what it once was,” she said. “It doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but less likely. But in my research it’s the mid- and lower-level officials who don’t have that kind of security detail that are the greatest risk.”

In 2011, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords (D-Arizona) was among 18 who were shot at a constituent meeting at a supermarket parking lot in Tucson. Six were killed. Giffords was shot point-blank in the head, but survived.

In 2017, Congressman Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana) was seriously wounded during a baseball practice of a Republican congressional team. Three others were also hit.

Last October, the FBI arrested 13 men belonging to the Wolverine Watchmen, a paramilitary militia group, in an aborted attempt to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer.

“Unless you hire personal detail, lower-level officials are much easier targets,” Bell said. “Sadly, violence is much easier to accomplish.”

The upcoming 58th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, to many of a certain age, was the loss of Camelot with a young 42-year-old president and the attractive First Lady, Jackie. It’s almost a parlor game to project what may have happened had Kennedy lived. It can be quite the rabbit hole to follow.

“His death left behind a legacy of glamour,” Bell said. “But what if Oswald decided against it or could not break away that day? I don’t know if the JFK legacy would be what it is today. He would have had another year in office, and possibly eight years in all if he won re-election. Polls show presidents in office that long, popularity goes down.

“His place in history would have been different had he lived. Maybe Vietnam would have been different. Civil rights might have been different. He was beginning to slow on that because it would hurt his re-election chances in the South, and then Johnson successfully pushed for civil rights as president. There’s just so many dominoes in history that would have fallen differently had he lived.”

Do you know of a student, faculty member, project, event, alumnus or any other story idea for “WT: Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle?” If so, email Jon Mark Beilue at


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