Blood on the Debate Floor
Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.Sometimes, debates in legislatures can get a little too heated. The result: a scuffle breaks out on the floor of the chamber. This sort of thing tends to occur in non-Anglophone legislatures and has provided material for satirical TV shows for years. More dramatic slants, especially in Western literature, often draw on the assassination of Julius Caesar or Shakespeare's famous dramatization. May be the only interesting thing that Not-So-Omniscient Council of Bickering will ever do. Compare Cavemen vs. Astronauts Debate when the debate is over something mundane or silly. Note: In Real Life, whilst actual fist-fights are generally considered a bad thing, regular heated debates (of the kind that only very, very occasionally erupt into physical violence) are generally a good sign for the health of the country's democratic institutions; if politicians are fighting in Parliament, it means their opinions differ, and differ publicly, and that the legislature is actually a powerful enough institution to be worth fighting over. Dictatorships tend to have very polite, well-mannered "legislative bodies". On the other hand, if heated debates are all that happen without any actual decisions being made, you have another trope altogether.
— Congressman Preston Brooks, seconds before the first swing of his gold-headed gutta-percha cane.
- Happens pretty consistently in Axis Powers Hetalia, particularly amongst the Allies; it's not uncommon for meetings to end with the characters physically fighting each other.
- Defied in Tales of the Emperasque - expecting the human-eldar negotiations to end this way, Taldeer makes her daughter part of the diplomatic expedition, using the fact that Lofn has a passive calming field around her, which helps to keep everyone's tempers in check.
- Discussed, or at least alluded to, in The Next Frontier when the Kerbals watch some alien TV and see a number of local worthies get into a very heated debate on what seems to be a political discussion show.
Scott: "Well, they do say it's a sign of a healthy democracy..."
- 300: Queen Gorgo speaks to the Spartan gerousia (senate), hoping to convince them to send the full army to reinforce King Leonidas. Theron betrays her and mocks her fidelity for having slept with him. Gorgo's rebuttal is a sword to his rib, followed by a ruthless Ironic Echo of the words he used against her during said tryst (which was anything but consensual).
- There are a couple of small ones near the end of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
- Get Smart has the Chief go after the Vice President.
- In H. H. Munro (Saki)'s "The Oversight" a character references the violence that had come to be seen as characteristic of the Austro-Hungarian Parliament (See also Real Life, below):
"...not to my dying day shall I forget last year's upheaval over the Suffragette question. Laura Henniseed left the house in a state of speechless indignation, but before she had reached that state she had used language that would not have been tolerated in the Austrian Reichsrath."
- Joked about in "America (The Book)" from The Daily Show. The writers joked that after Preston Brooks beat Charles Sumner half to death on the floor of the Senate, only "wiffle canes" were allowed in the Senate.
- In Star Trek: Destiny, when President Bacco calls the ambassadors from the major galactic powers together for an emergency conference, Klingon ambassador K'mtok and Romulan ambassador Kalavak end up fighting. After a series of accusations and insults regarding events in prior novels (particularly in Star Trek: Articles of the Federation), the two begin to physically scuffle, until separated by Federation security.
- In one of the novels from Star Trek: The Fall, the Parliament Andoria finally boils over as the Andorians' ongoing crisis reaches a climax, and its members start fighting in a mass brawl. At a later point in the story, they pelt the Presider and Speaker with thrown objects after the former issues an unpopular executive decree and the latter seconds his call for immediate recess.
- There's a passing mention in Honor Harrington that the San Martin legislative process centers around "debates, arguments, shouting matches and occasional fistfights".
- An episode of Rome had a full-on fight break out in the senate when Pompey's supporters passed a motion that called on Caesar to return and surrender or be labeled a traitor and condemned to death. Caesar's supporters did not take this well, as might be expected. The fight actually prevented Mark Antony from vetoing the motion, which was what Pompey wanted in the first place (it was supposed to show Caesar he was alone, nothing more).
- The show also depicted Caesar's assassination, of course. And there was a scene where Cicero sent a message to be read in the Senate in his absence, which turned out to be a scathing attack on Antony. Antony demanded that the clerk read out the whole thing and then bludgeoned the poor bastard to death with the scroll.
- Antony previously had pretended he was appalled by this trope, but in his usual insincere but lovable fashion he was only using stealth puns or indirect insults.
"You boys play too rough for me. Knives in the Senate House? I didn't know you had it in you."
- News footage of this has been used many times on Have I Got News for You, to the point where when a Guest Host tried to lead the teams to an answer about "something" that had happened in a foreign legislature that week, Paul Merton immediately assumed it had been a fight.
- The earliest version of the opening credits also showed Michael Heseltine grabbing the mace and threatening the Labour frontbenches with it, which he did in The '80s.
- The It'll Be Alright on the Night election night special from 1997 had a segment which featured footage from Indian, Jordanian, Russian, and South Korean assemblies where various members of those assemblies threw things at each other (India), went after one another individually while buffered by their own "groups" (Jordan), attacked as a group a lone member who was reticent in ceding the microphone (Russia), or attacked the head parliamentarian for something (s)he said (South Korea).
- The death scene in Julius Caesar. Kinda because it really happened (see Real Life).
- John Dickinson and John Adams get into a stick fight during the Continental Congress in 1776.
- In Exalted, it's mentioned that brawls have broken out in the Deliberative of The Realm. Since the representatives are all Super Soldiers, this is a very bad situation for the merely-mortal guards.
- And one time after the Deliberative vetoed one decree of hers too many, the Scarlet Empress had the exits blocked, then sent in the army to slaughter all the representatives. The next batch of legislators learned their lesson.
- While collecting a comprehensive list would be a bit difficult due to the spottiness of records, a notable number of the Clan Khans of BattleTech have killed each other in their Grand Councils, sort of a gathering of peers to debate Clan politics and plans. This includes an old man having his throat stepped on until his neck snapped, someone being shot in the head with a laser, and a Khan accentuating his violent policies with a throwing knife to the throat. For a society so hidebound to Honor Before Reason, this obviously led to mass upset and functional civil war.
- If you pick Lord Harrowmont in Dragon Age: Origins as the new king of the dwarfs, Prince Bhelen, and some of his supporters go hostile, and try to kill you and the newly crowned king.
- Similarly, a fight breaks out at the Landsmeet when the new ruler is decided, no matter who it is. There can be both a formal duel and an all-out brawl there. Sadly, you cannot nominate your dog as your designated champion in the duel...
- Quest for Glory III is mostly based around gathering two warring groups (a warrior tribe of cattle ranchers, and magical shapeshifting leopard men) for a peace conference in a neutral city. When you finally get the two leaders together, they start talking... for five seconds, before they murder each other.
- The Dark Assembly in Disgaea often devolves into fighting... because you can instigate them after they reject one of your proposals. Might Makes Right if you win - your bill passes if you defeat the nays.
- Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, beating down a Nay vote causes them to like you even less, making them more likely to vote against you the next time you pass a proposal. The Dark Assembly is less about bribes and trying to sway them to your side and more yet another reason for Level Grinding.
- The Simpsons had Homer's and Mel Gibson's remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which Mr. Smith goes on a random killing spree during his famous filibuster, stabs the evil Senator to death with a flagpole, and even beheads the President after he enters the Senate. The test audiences and executives are horrified.
Mr. Smith: All in favor... say die!
- The most (in)famous occurrence of this: the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar (the famous one) inside the Senate (actually Pompey's Theater, where the Senate was temporarily meeting) on March 15, 44 BC. The reason the conspirators chose to kill him there is that, by custom, only senators were allowed to enter the chamber, so Caesar couldn't bring bodyguards.
- South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, architect of apartheid, was stabbed to death in Parliament in 1966 by a derangednote Communist parliamentary courier.
- Happened in the Russian Duma in 2005.
- Happens regularly in several South East Asian countries.
- South Korean Parliament members cannot be arrested while in debate, this goes back to the long practice of SK presidents arresting opponents before critical votes. This has resulted in a number of notable brawls, second in number only to Taiwan.
- The Legislative Yuan of the Republic of China (that's Taiwan, not the other China, whose rubber-stamp National People's Congress is by all accounts very well-behaved) has gotten a bit of a reputation for parliamentary debates devolving into out-and-out fistfights ever since real democracy was introduced in The '90s; these brawls sometimes involved over 50 legislators. Some have even accused the lawmakers of staging fights just to maintain their reputation as the most violent legislature on the planet.
- The Taiwanese readiness to believe that one of their own Presidential candidates had himself shot nonfatally to garner sympathy votes shows how accustomed to political violence the country is.
- And we Canadians thought we had it rough.
- To prevent this sort of thing happening in the British House of Commons, there are two red lines on the carpet, at two swords' lengths apart, which MPs are not allowed to cross - a custom originating from the days when MPs brought weapons to work. However, there was a case in 1972 when MP Bernadette Devlin—a Northern Irish Catholic activist and MP who refused to join Śinn Féin as she wanted to take her seat at Westminster and took a great risk to give the people of her constituency a voice—slapped Home Secretary Reginald Maudling, after he made claims that British soldiers during the "Bloody Sunday" massacre only fired in self-defense, which contradicted Devlin's eyewitness testimony on the event. (She was also pissed off that she had not been recognized to speak on the subject in Parliament, despite a longstanding convention that any MP who had been present at some event under parliamentary discussion must be given an opportunity to give an account.)
- It may be worth mentioning that a few times a particularly passionate MP has picked up the Ceremonial Mace, which presence is needed for Parliament to meet legally, and swung it around threateningly, although sometimes it's merely removed from its usual resting place as an act of protest.
- In Canada, John A. Macdonald (the first Prime Minister of Canada and Father of the Nation) once charged a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons himself and had to be physically restrained. Macdonald roared, "I'll lick him faster than Hell can scorch a feather!"
- In Macdonald's defense (sort of), he was an alcoholic...
- On May 22, 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina savagely beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with his cane while in the Senate chamber in response to a strong anti-slavery speech by Sumner. Sumner took three years to recover, and was injured for life.note Representative Anson Burlingame, also of Massachusetts, labelled Brooks a coward for the manner of the attack (besides the savagery and Sumner's lack of preparedness, Sumner was seated at his Senate desk—for why that's bad, see below), and Brooks challenged him to a duel. Burlingame accepted, requesting rifles as the weapon, and the Canadian side of Niagara Falls as the site. Brooks was surprised at his opponent's enthusiasm, then refused to show up after learning his opponent was a crack marksman, citing fear for his safety en route.
- Note that fighting wasn't terribly unusual in Congress back then. Members of Congress of both houses and all political persuasions were known to carry canes, blades, and even revolvers in the House and Senate chambers (notably, Sumner's colleagues failed to come to his aid because Senator Lawrence Keitt of South Carolina pulled out his revolver and pointed it at them—Two years later, Keitt started another brawl in the House after attempting to strangle Congressman Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania after another incendiary debate over slavery. The brawl only ended after a missed punch knocked a congressman's wig off, causing all the fighters to erupt into spontaneous laughter). They were generally used only sparingly (probably never as far as the firearms go). On the other hand, it was unusual for a Senator to be beaten within an inch of his life.
- What also made it unusual was the dishonorable way Brooks fought. The Senate desks were built into the chairs (like in some American High Schools). Brooks positioned himself so Sumner couldn't stand up or move to defend himself. This foreshadowed his cowardly behavior at the duel.
- A fistfight (almost) erupted on the floor of the Alabama State Senate in 2007.
- Cracked is on the case with When Politicians Attack, though not all of them necessarily took place on the floor.
- In December 1997, during a debate in the EU Parliament on support to the tobacco industry, Danish member Freddy Blak insinuated that Portuguese member Raúl Rosado Fernandes that he had received money from tobacco lobbyists. Rosado Fernandes got so angry that he approached Blak, blackened his eye, and tried to strangle him.
- In 1988, Northern Irish MEP and hard-right Loyalist Free Presbyterian minister Ian Paisley denounced Pope John Paul II (who was visiting) as the Antichrist during a speech to the European Parliament, only to be hit by the German and very Catholic MEP Otto von Habsburg.note
- The Reichsratnote of the "Austrian" halfnote of Imperial Austria-Hungary was to the late 19th and early 20th century what the Taiwanese and South Korean legislatures are to today—famous for repeated outbreaks of violence. Particularly notable is the fight of 1897, in which the Reichsrat was the venue of a series of riots occasioned by a measure to extend limited autonomy to the non-German parts of the Empire such as the Czech lands, Croatia, Poland, etc., which was violently opposed by the pro-German parties. Mark Twain describes a typical scene:
"One night, while the customary pandemonium was crashing and thundering along at its best, a fight broke out. It was a surging, struggling, shoulder-to-shoulder scramble. A great many blows were struck. Twice [Pan-German party leader and racist Georg, Ritter von] Schonerer lifted one of the heavy ministerial fauteuils— some say with one hand—and threatened members of the Majority with it, but it was wrenched away from him; a member hammered [German Radical party leader and racist Karl Hermann] Wolf over the head with the President's bell, and another member choked him; a professor was flung down and belabored with fists and choked; he held up an open penknife as a defense against the blows; it was snatched from him and flung to a distance; it hit a peaceful Christian Socialist who wasn't doing anything, and brought blood from his hand."
- In 1912, István Tisza, President of the House of Representatives in Hungary used police force to remove numerous opposition representatives from the House, because they wouldn't stop obstruction. A few days later, a representative named Gyula Kovács went into the House, jumped off the journalists' gallery, shouted "There is still a member of the opposition here!", and fired three shots at Tisza, but missed him. He then turned the gun on himself, but survived with a permanent head injury. Tisza continued the session.
- The Mexican Chamber of Deputies, now that it actually has power for a change, occasionally devolves into an out-and-out brawl.
- In Ukraine:
- The 2010 debate in the Verkhovna Rada that resulted in Russia's lease on naval bases in the country being extended until 2042 involved a full-scale brawl that featured eggs being thrown and someone letting off a smoke grenade.
- And again in 2012, this time over the issue of whether Russian should be an official language in the parts of Ukraine where it's widely spoken (note that due to historical and economic factors, this sort of thing is Serious Business in Eastern Europe).
- After Yanukovych fell in February 2014, the Rada installed a new government, but this did not end the crisis in Ukraine. By April, pro-Russian protesters were trying to separate the eastern regions from Ukraine. In that context, there was a fight in the Rada on April 8, 2014, as the leader of the Communists spoke against nationalism, and nationalists from Svoboda forced him to stop speaking.
- Has happened more than once in Chile, with rather harsh polemics among congressmen of every political wing. The crowd watching has gotten its share of fistfights and yelling sessions too. One of the most infamous examples happened when right-wing senator Ivan Moreira attacked left-wing senator Jorge Schaulsohn when he was speaking to some TV teams, which reached quite the Memetic Mutation levels back then; some of the most recent involve protesting university students and a lawmakers struggling with several workers and some claim it later caused a secretary's miscarriage.
- Happened in Lebanon in 2011. In response to an anti-Syrian MP calling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a liar, a pro-Syrian MP attempted to attack the anti-Syrian with a chair, but was restrained.
- Sure, let's go ahead and put a Neo-Nazi and a Communist right next to each other in a Greek debate. What could go wrong?
- Representatives Howard Berman and Brad Sherman (both Democratic representatives from California) actually agreed on most of the issues. However, since they were redistricted into the same district, they had to campaign against each other in order for one of them to hold the seat. At one debate, they actually got a little physical over who originally wrote the DREAM Act (an immigration bill that they both support), and a police officer wound up having to come onstage in order to assure they separated before someone got hurt. As you can tell from the video, the whooping crowd probably didn't help tensions much.
- Pennsylvania's Buckshot War started off this way when in 1838 the Democrats beat the incumbent Whig/Anti-Mason/Abolitionist ticket. The Anti-Masons decided to insert a phony list of winners in with the real office holders to so mess things up that the whole election would be redone. When both the Democrats and Whig/Anti-Masons installed separate speakers of the house, the Pennyslvania State Senate erupted in a riot. Which led to an armed mob attacking Harrisburg, which led to the state militia getting called out and only 67 partially sober troops showing up, which finally got the whole sorry mess settled. Politics could get lively in 19th century America.
- In 1928 in Yugoslavia Punia Račić, a representative of the People's Radical Party, shot five people during a parliament session. Three of them, including Stjepan Radić, leader of the Croatian People's Peasant Party, died.
- In September 2013, a member of the Jordanian parliament fired upon another with an AK-47.
- In 1981, Philadelphia City Councilmen John Street and Francis Rafferty—the latter a former prizefighter—engaged in a fistfight on the council floor. It was one of a string of disreputable events that earned the council the label of "Worst Legislative Body in the World." Nineteen years later Street would be elected mayor—and considered an OK (if somewhat corrupt) one at that (he presided over the city's 2000s revival; his mayoralty saw the first increase in Philadelphia's population since the 1950s).
- In early America dueling was a normal aspect of party politics and a number of the writers of the Declaration and the Constitution fought in duels. That's right, America really was, founded by gunslingers.
- At the borders between DC and Maryland is the Bladensburg dueling ground, outside the jurisdiction of DC police, and to far in the back country for Maryland police to want to bother with simply to interfere with quarrelsome politicians killing each other.
- Not only duels: here's a list of famous Congress fist fights.
- Most infamously, sitting Vice President Aaron Burr dueled former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, fatally shooting him. This was also only the last in a string of duels both men engaged in (with other people). Hamilton's son Philip had been killed in one previously himself.
- President Andrew Jackson engaged in a huge number of duels (none while in office), and stated he carried so many bullets in his body from these that he rattled when he walked. It's perhaps no surprise that when a deranged man attempted to shoot him (both guns misfired) Jackson attacked him with his cane, the would-be assassin having to then be rescued from him.