I've combed through the history books and I've managed to count 4381 people killed in the United States during the 20th Century from political disputes of one sort or another [n.1]:
Some of these types of violence are similar to other worldwide phenomena. Lynching is sometimes considered unique to America, but it is similar to the death squads of oppressive regimes elsewhere. The labor fights that have been the second most common cause of political deaths are basically the same as labor disputes everywhere. The Oklahoma City bombing was so non-American that for the first few days, it was presumed to be the work of foreigners.
On the other hand, there are a few types of political violence which are uniquely (or at least disproportionately) American. Where else would over half of all political killings be racially motivated? (It's especially odd when we remember that the two conflicting races share the same language and religion.) Other countries have Red Brigades; the US has race riots. Also, religious conflict in other countries usually pits two ancient religions with grudges against one another; in the US, the established religions get along fine, but for some reason, American society tends to spawn brand new cults that have a mean streak, a death wish or a short fuse. (In fact, the worst cult death of the century is not counted here, but keep in mind that the 900 dead at the People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, were mostly Americans, so we're an exporter as well.)
Another peculiarity of American political violence is that, for some unfathomable reason, we've just passed through a major spell of it. Look at the map: three of the seven bloodiest episodes of political violence occurred within the short period of 1992-95. When you add this to the fact that the elections of 1992-94 created a total reversal of which party controls which branch of government, while unleashing the largest third party candidacy in any presidential election since 1912, you get something that looks suspiciously like an insurrection. Ask any twelve people what it all means, or why we went through this upheaval, and you'll get twelve different answers, all of them wrong. The truth is, no one knows. It's probably just one of those random fluctuations in national crankiness that happen now and then.
However, the biggest peculiarity of American political violence is that there's not more of it. Through most of the century, USA has been the world's fourth largest population, yet I can easily name 80 countries that have killed more of their people in political disputes -- and dozens more who can't because they just don't have enough inhabitants to start with. Considering how violent the USA is on a day-to-day basis (compare the American murder rate with any other rich country), it's remarkable that our national dispute resolution system has worked as well as it has.
SOURCES: This (4381) is just the number of specific incidents that I can point to, but don't quote me on this, because I suspect that the true number is closer to 4700 - 5000. My lynching statistics are fairly reliable, being based on a count kept by Tuskeegee Institute, and published annually in old editions of The World Almanac, but my count in other categories may be incomplete.
The reason for this suspicion is that the World Handbook of Political and Social Indicators gives 434 deaths by political violence and 2 political executions in the United States, 1948-1977, while my count for this period is 358 for both categories. Since the WHPSI doesn't name names, I can't compare my list with theirs and iron out the differences. Instead I can assume that I've undercounted by the same degree all across the board, so I can adjust my total by extending this ratio (1 : 1.21) to the entire century.
Since the lynching statistics pre-date the WHPSI count and are probably accurate, I don't need to adjust them. I'll remove them, and only adjust the residue. Once I subtract the 2134 lynchings from my count of 4381, I'm left with 2247 deaths. After boosting this by 121%, I get 2719. Adding the lynchings back gets 4853. Adding in an appropriate margin of error gives me 4700 - 5000.
I'm pretty sure I gathered almost every labor killing between 1909 and 1965 using The History of Violence in America, published by the New York Times in 1969.
I've only included events within the US itself, including DC, but not including territories like Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Hawaii before statehood.
DEFINITIONS: I don't have any firm definition for "political violence", but I have a loose checklist of criteria which helps me decide what to include and what not. A particular act doesn't have to fit all of these, but the more criteria which apply, the more likely that it's a political death:
Naturally, we'll never get a single number that everyone can agree on because each of these criteria is open to quibbles. Do two buddies on a killing spree count as "collective"? What about a gang war? Does a serial killer stalking random women counts as selecting a victim as a representative of a group? If an insurgent organization robs a bank to raise money, does shooting the guard count as political or merely criminal? And let's face it, many murders lack any obvious criminal motivation.
FAQ: Why don't you post your list? I'd be interested in seeing it, and maybe I can add some incidents that you missed.
A: (1) It would use up all my web space, and (2) I really don't want to get into case-by-case arguments about it with every lunatic on the Web (I don't mean you; I mean those other lunatics.)
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Last updated: December 1998
Copyright © 1998 Matthew White