When I was a senior in college, my girlfriend at the time was directing a production of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Assassins.” I was tangentially involved in the production, working with some of the performers, so I got to know the show fairly well. It traces the stories of those individuals who attempted to kill American presidents, naturally focusing on Booth and Oswald but devoting attention to killers and would-be killers Leon Czolgosz (McKinley), John Hinckley (Reagan), Charles Guiteau (Garfield), Giuseppe Zangara (FDR), Samuel Byck (Nixon), and Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (Ford), each of whom basically gets a song to explain themselves.
“Assassins” is far from Sondheim’s best work, and I’ve somewhat shied away from it in memory because that production was coincident with, and at least arguably related to, some painful things that happened in my life that year. But I’m thinking about it again in the wake of yesterday’s horrific news from Arizona—the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the murder of six innocent people and wounding of fourteen more, including the congresswoman—and the rush to “interpret” the event to fit a storyline already fixed in the mind of the interpreter.
What “Assassins” communicates (and what, I now see, James Fallows wrote online at the Atlantic last night) is that those who attempt to kill political leaders often do so for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the positions of those leaders; it’s their prominence, not their opinions, that renders them targets. There are exceptions, of course: Booth, a loyalist of the Confederacy, murdered President Lincoln after concluding that the president would give blacks the right to vote upon the conclusion of the Civil War. Czolgosz, a revolutionary anarchist, killed McKinley as a political act. But Hinckley, famously imitating “Taxi Driver” character Travis Bickle (himself inspired by the real-life would-be assassin Arthur Bremer, who paralyzed Dixiecrat presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972), was trying to impress Jodie Foster. Fromme and Moore were Charles Manson followers, intent on killing Ford to support the cult leader. Zangara saw no distinction between Herbert Hoover and FDR.
These individuals general bore animus against “the government” in general, but in most cases had no specific grievance against their targets, which mostly seem to have been chosen for convenience. I think this was the case in this instance. The suspect in custody had made internet videos showing a conspiratorial mindset and had been in trouble both with the police and a community college from which he was kicked out. He seems to share the typical antisocial profile and swung between extreme viewpoints (note the Sarah Palin staffer, understandably defensive given that her boss figuratively put Rep. Giffords in the crosshairs, but inexcusably accusatory in suggesting that the shooter was “left wing and very liberal”).
This isn’t to totally excuse the very ugly political culture of our times, or the general contempt for government that at the least sits as background and context for expressions of that contempt. It’s one piece of this story, as is the easy availability of automatic weapons and the difficulty in diagnosing and treating mental instability. But, unsympathetic as I am to Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, the truth is that they have millions upon millions of listeners and supporters who don’t go out and shoot up public gatherings—and there’s no indication that this shooter had any affinity for them, or for the Tea Party. It seems that what we have here is a deeply unwell individual who saw an opportunity to momentarily impose himself on the consciousness of the world, and did so with tragic consequences. Unless and until information arises to the contrary, it’s irresponsible and ugly to put his horrifying act in a larger political context, and in some sense doing so reinforces the very problem it ostensibly is working against.