September 22, 1975: President Ford survives second assassination attempt

The word ‘assassination’ is an interesting one (NB I taught linguistics for 15 years at university so I find everything about language fascinating). It stems from a rather unique set of historical events a long time ago. From 1090 to 1275 a group of Shia Muslim fanatics known as the Asasiyun (Arabic for “those who adhere to the foundation”, i.e. of the faith) carried out a reign of terror across a wide swath of what we now call the Middle East. What they did was effectively ‘assassinate’ people, including some senior ones. This is clearly terrorism in practice, more specifically religiously-motivated. Note that the belief that the term ‘assassin’ comes from the word ‘hashish’, with the corollary that the killers were high when they acted, is false and comes perhaps from Marco Polo.

Assassination as a tactic is of course a well-known phenomenon, carried out in many places at many times. To qualify as ‘assassination’, however, in common parlance the victim has to be famous (or infamous I suppose): the murder of an average Joe would not rank as an example.

As a matter of fact presidents are famous (and sometimes infamous as many would see the current placeholder in the US) and there have been three instances of assassination of American presidents: Abraham Lincoln (in 1865), William McKinley (by an anarchist, in 1901) and John F. Kennedy (in 1963). There have also been several failed attempts, including an event that occurred on this day in 1975.

It was during the short presidential term of Gerald Ford, who had taken over in the wake of the resignation of Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal, that Sara Jane Moore, an apparent fan of Patty Hearst (I mentioned her in a recent blog), fired a gun at him in San Francisco. Interestingly, Mr. Ford had survived another assassination try a mere 17 days earlier, that time in another California city, Sacramento. Ms. Moore did get one shot off that missed its mark and her second attempt was thwarted by a bystander, former Marine and Vietnam vet Oliver Sipple, who instinctively grabbed Moore’s arm when she raised the gun. She was sentenced to life in prison but managed to escape in 1979, only to turn herself in two days later: she was paroled in 2007.

Why did Ms. Moore try to kill President Ford? She was a volunteer bookkeeper for an organisation known as People in Need (PIN) created by Patty Hearst’s father Randolph to address allegations that he was ‘committing crimes against the people’. This would put her act squarely in the ‘ideological’ framework.

A few years after this event Ronald Reagan was shot as well and survived. I cannot think of any other similar attempt since then offhand. Then again I would not dismiss future incidents: assassins become famous – or infamous – after all.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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