Can a Determined Assassin Be Stopped?

By Marquart, Jeff | Security Management, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Can a Determined Assassin Be Stopped?


Marquart, Jeff, Security Management


Of the many challenges that executive protection specialists may face, one of the most harmful is not one presented by potential attackers. It is the belief systems of the executive and those around him or her. Specifically, it is the belief that you can't stop a determined assassin. The "If they want to get you, they will get you" syndrome.

I cringe every time I hear these words because they are so untrue and so damaging. This notion was stated most famously perhaps by President John F. Kennedy, who said, "Anyone can kill a president. All he has to do is be willing to trade his life for the president's." The problem is that, despite his intelligence and wide knowledge of the world, Kennedy knew little about security.

While his words may sound profound, the notion that one cannot stop an assassin is ridiculous. In reality, much more than a willingness to die is required to assassinate a president or other famous person. In the case of a president, one must overcome the numerous obstacles set in place by the highly trained, well-prepared, well-staffed Secret Service.

Consider the case of would-be presidential assassin Arthur Bremer, who was ready and willing to trade his life for President Nixon's. He wanted to become famous by killing a famous person, whether he himself lived or died. Nor did he fear going to jail; he only feared that he would fail.

Bremer described his several-week pursuit of Nixon in a diary. He wrote that he visited several of Nixon's public appearances, armed with a .38 caliber revolver. Like most public figure pursuers, Bremer paid particularly close attention to security and the accessibility of his target. His observations of security dominated his writings, as the following excerpts show:

"Three men in reflective orange overalls and carrying flashlights (it wasn't really dark yet) searched the road the President would travel for bombs, wires, strange diggings nearby, etc. I guess. Had heard that snow-banks were watered down to nothing to destroy a hiding place for bombs.... All the homes and businesses along the route were questioned by Secret Service men and asked to be on the look-out for strange movements in the bushes, strange cars, etc. I saw a trench coated guy, an obvious SS cop, leave a home along the route and go into his car, he looked at me as I passed him.

"A young handsome cop with a mustache took down all the license plate numbers of the cars coming into the lot.... Mr. Mustache stopped cars from leaving the lot too soon - possibly joining the motorcade. Fatty in the orange vest stopped cars too. A neatly run operation."

Though Bremer pursued Nixon for weeks and visited several public appearances, he was never able to get the opportunity he wanted. Thus, due to the physical security precautions, Bremer moved on.

Bremer then focused on another famous person, one who was less difficult to encounter. Bremer chose a governor who was running for the presidency: George Wallace.

He attended Wallace's public appearances as well, assessing his chances. Referring to Wallace's security detail at an appearance in Cadillac, Michigan, Bremer noted: "These SS men are a different crew than was in Dearborn. No suspicions. Another security breakdown. And no cops to hold back the crowd from stepping in front of his following cars!"

Two days after making these observations, Bremer attended a Wallace rally at a shopping center in Laurel, Maryland. Having abandoned a target he perceived as too well-protected (Nixon), Bremer shot George Wallace with a .38 caliber revolver.

Bremer's display of target transference is actually quite common. In fact, most would-be attackers move from one target to another, assessing accessibility and vulnerability.

After murdering actress Rebecca Schaeffer, for example, assassin Robert Bardo described in an interview how he had at first pursued another public figure, a young singer. …

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