Assassination is something none us like to talk about, but it's nevertheless an unhappy part of the history of the presidency. Nearly 10 percent of our 43 presidents have died at the hand of assassins, and attempts were made on a half-dozen others. The prospect of assassination is a legitimate concern for the presidential candidates, their families and the rest of us.
The Secret Service, which guards presidents and presidential candidates, naturally declines to talk about assassination, or any of the details of how it protects anyone. The Internet attracts weird characters, many of them blowhards armed only with a laptop and a neurotic grievance who would have difficulty plotting a successful trip to the bathroom, but threats have to be taken seriously. Lately, reporters accompanying Barack Obama have noticed a growing number of agents in the Obama traveling party, conspicuous for their haircuts, neat dark suits, modest ties and tiny yellow badges worn on the lapels of their suits.
Some people who ought to know better even speculate about the likelihood of the assassination of specific candidates. Doris Lessing, the 88-year-old winner of the Nobel Prize for literature last year, says Mr. Obama "would certainly not last long, a black man in the position of president." She thinks "the best thing would be if [Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama] would run together. Hillary is a very sharp lady. It might be calmer if she were to win and not Obama." This merely sounds like a clumsy endorsement better left unsaid.
Newspapers here and abroad have taken note of the buzz about assassination. Ben Olken, a professor economics at Harvard, has even quantified the "Effects of Assassinations on Institutions and War" and finds, no small irony, that the assassins rarely accomplish what they set out to do. Together with his research associate, Ben Jones, an economist at Northwestern University, he studied the economic conditions surrounding dozens of assassination attempts on heads of state, some successful and some not, throughout the world over the past 125 years. They discovered, for one startling example, that assassination usually has no effect on starting wars, and "suggests that World War I might have begun regardless of whether the attempt on the life of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 had succeeded or failed."