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Today in Terrorism

April 14, 1865 | Assassination of US President Abraham Lincoln

John Wilkes Booth assassinated US President Lincoln in an act of terrorism on April 14, 1865

Not all murders are terrorist in nature but at times they are, especially when we call it assassination.

WASHINGTON, USA — I have referred on many occasions to the ‘Wave Theory’ of terrorism as espoused by US academic David Rapoport, a theory I happen to like a lot. In a nutshell, Dr. Rapoport looked at terrorism across the centuries (dating back to the mid-1800s) and found grosso modo that you can distinguish four broad waves, each of which last for 30-40 years on average.

The first such period he termed the ‘anarchist wave’. It was exemplified by a motley bunch of actors in many countries who sought to overthrow regimes through the use of violence: more specifically the elimination of a head of state.

What Sign Is Your Perfect Match? | Old school cartoons
Two of history’s less successful anarchists

Among their ‘achievements’ were:

  • The assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia on March 1, 1881
  • The fatal stabbing of French President Sadi Carnot on June 24, 1884
  • The deadly shooting of Spanish Prime Minister Canovas del Castillo on August 8, 1897, and
  • The killing of US President William McKinley on September 6, 1901 (the president succumbed to his wounds on September 14).

These terrorists spoke of what they called the ‘propaganda of the deed’, specific political actions meant to be exemplary to others and serve as a catalyst for revolution. In other words, by killing world VIPs the masses are spurred to rise up and seize power. The fact that it never actually led to such revolts (maybe the Russian Revolution of 1917 is a true example, but I am not an expert in that regard) should not take away from the fear and damage these actors caused.

Speaking of actors, a real thespian carried out one of history’s most famous assassinations on this day in 1865. John Wilkes Booth shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., a scant five days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his massive army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the American Civil War.

A vigorous supporter of the Southern cause, Booth was outspoken in his advocacy of slavery and his particular hatred of Abraham Lincoln. After he shot the president in the back of the head he leapt from the theatre box to the stage, shouting ‘Sic semper tyrannis’ (‘Thus always to tyrants’). He escaped but was later found and shot dead.

Booth may not have been an anarchist, but his deed was very much political in nature. As I have always said, terrorism is a serious act of violence stemming from underlying political, ideological or religious motives.

How else can this act be interpreted if not one of terrorism?

What happened on this day in the past?

Terrorism has been around for a long time. Check out my blog Today in Terrorism and have a look at what happened on this day in the past and what it means for today.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Director of the National Security programme at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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