Is al Qaeda the Greater Assassination Threat?

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I’m with Joe in thinking that the tragic Tucson shootings are being over-politicized, and likewise Jon Chait has wise words on the subject. (I think Jon understates the influence that inflammatory rhetoric can have on the mentally unstable, but then I’m no psychologist.) That said, the most explicit political talk of things like “Second Amendment remedies” is wildly irresponsible and hopefully this tragedy can serve as an opportunity to stamp out that sort of conversation, whether or not there’s a direct link in this case.

But I worry less about political radicals picking up guns to settle political beefs than I do about something else. The near-assassination of Gabrielle Giffords has neatly demonstrated to countless numbers of potential terrorists, either foreigners or Americans with foreign allegiances, just how vulnerable America’s political leadership really is. The Capitol complex may teem with fearsome guards in reflective sunglasses who tote semi-automatic machine guns. But most of the time, even quite senior and prominent members of Congress (excluding a handful of leadership figures) travel with no security at all. (More on See images of the mourners from the Tucson shooting)

The implications of this are not new. In October of 2002, the U.S. Capitol Police warned Senators about their exposure to al Qaeda snipers; thankfully, those concerns wound up being overblown. But the sinister logic behind the fear remains. At a minimum, the Giffords shooting could serve as a reminder for lone-wolf Islamic radicals like Najibullah Zazi and Faisal Shahzad, who might conclude that trying to bomb major American cities is too difficult for an individual to pull off–but that it’s easy to acquire a handgun and a Congressman’s schedule.

I worry, in other words, about the possibility of another mentally-imbalanced person–possibly stoked up by hysterical political rhetoric–trying to kill an American political leader. But Ezra Klein is right that such acts are likely to remain extremely rare. So I worry even more that Saturday’s horror may offer a terrible example to those people already quite eager to kill prominent Americans–and only need an efficient and attention-grabbing way of doing so. It’s actually something of a mystery that al Qaeda hasn’t adopted this tactic yet, and we’re very fortunate for it. Let’s hope America’s luck continues.

Update–Smart take from commenter Cookie Puss:

Al Qaeda isn’t shooting politicians because it doesn’t produce much terror, comparatively. What’s scarier, a public figure being shot at a public event, or getting shot by a sniper in your own back yard while you water your garden? Which is more likely to cause people to be terrorized and change their way of life?

Good point. Although media attention is a key terrorist goal, and going after prominent figures certainly serves that purpose.