Thursday, May 13, 2010

Five Failed Assassination Attempts

Today is the 29th anniversary of Mehmet Ali Agca's attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II, in Saint Peter's Square in Rome. Today is the Feast of the Ascension, and it's also the anniversary of the first apparition at Fatima; the Pope had been standing in an open car, on the way to his weekly public audience with visitors. Agca's four shots hit the Pope and two tourists, a 58-year-old woman from Buffalo, NY and a 21-year-old woman from Jamaica. The older of the two women was seriously injured, shot in the chest and abdomen, but all three victims survived.

A Secret Service agent I met years ago told me that we don't hear about the vast majority of assassination attempts that are foiled before the would-be assassin ever gets near his or her target. I'm willing to believe that, but wonder how they count "attempts;" how advanced does a threat or a plan need to be before it's considered an attempt? I suppose that in today's environment even the most casual, joking threats are taken seriously.

Here are five assassination attempts that got pretty far, but did not succeed.

1. Queen Victoria, June 20, 1887. The "Jubilee Plot" was a plan to blow up Westminster Abbey, Queen Victoria and half of her cabinet on the 50th anniversary of her coronation. Newspapers reported the discovery of several bombs in Westminster Abbey in the days before June 20. Fenians — Irish nationalists — were blamed, and two Irishmen were sentenced to 15 years in prison for their role in the plot. The chief organizer, however, was one Francis Millen — who, as it turned out, was an undercover British agent. Millen, a member of the Irish republican organization Clan na Gael, was supposed to encourage sedition in order to identify and discredit or capture Fenian revolutionaries. It appears that this was less a real assassination attempt than an elaborate conspiracy to embarrass Charles Stewart Parnell and the Home Rule advocates. Millen was allowed to "escape" to the United States.

2. Adolf Hitler, July 20, 1944. The "20 July plot" was a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler at Wolf's Lair, his field headquarters in East Prussia, and overthrow the Nazi government. Plans for the attack began as early as 1938, and earlier attempts failed in 1942 and 1943. The participation of Lieutenant Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg, a decorated veteran of the North Africa campaign, gave the conspiracy new focus. Colonel Henning von Treskcow proposed adapting the "Valkyrie" plan, for restoring government in the event of a breakdown in central command, for a coup after Hitler was assassinated. The plan was that Stauffenberg would plant a bomb in a briefcase at one of Hitler's conferences, which he managed to do on July 20. The bomb exploded, killing four, but Hitler survived with only minor injuries. In the wake of the bombing the Gestapo arrested more than 7,000 members of the German resistance, and executed almost 5,000 of them. Hitler killed himself on April 30, 1945, two days before the fall of Berlin.

3. Harry S. Truman, November 1, 1950. President Truman was living at Blair House, across the street from the White House, because the White House was undergoing major structural repairs. He was napping on the second floor when two Puerto Rican nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, tried to enter Blair House by killing the guards at the front door and in a guard booth on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue. Collazo shot Capitol Hill police officer Donald Birdzell in the knee before he was taken down with shots to the head and arm. Torresola put four bullets into Officer Leslie Coffelt in the guard booth, mortally wounding him, and shot White House police officer Joseph Downs in the hip. Going to Collazo's defense, Torresola shot Birdzell again, then ran out of ammunition. Coffelt, dying of his wounds, managed to stagger out of the guard booth and kill Torresola with a shot to his head. Collazo recovered from his wounds and was sentenced to death, which Truman commuted to life in prison. Jimmy Carter pardoned Collazo in 1979; he returned to Puerto Rico, and died in 1994.

4. Leonid Brezhnev, January 22, 1969. Viktor Ilyin, a Second Lieutenant in the Soviet Army, deserted and made his way to Moscow with two stolen handguns. He stole a police officer's uniform from his uncle and went to Red Square, where Brezhnev was scheduled to appear at a ceremony honoring cosmonauts Alexey Leonov, Valentina Tereshkova, Georgy Beregovoy and Andrian Nikolayev. Mistaking the cosmonauts' sedan for Brezhnev, Ilyin fired with both guns. He killed the driver and wounded Beregovoy; Brezhnev was completely unharmed. Ilyin was found insane and committed to a mental hospital for 20 years.

5. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, April 30, 2009. April 30 is the Dutch national holiday of Koniginnedag (Queen's Day), which celebrates the birthday of Queen Beatrix (although her actual birthday is in January; celebrating your birthday when you want is a perk of royalty). Last year, a 38-year-old man named Karst Roeland Tates, with no criminal record and no history of political activism, drove his car at high speed into a parade that included Queen Beatrix, her son and heir Prince Willem-Alexander of Orange, and several other members of the Dutch royal family. The royal family was unhurt, but eight people were killed, including Tates himself. Tates left no note or anything to explain his actions.

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