The Peculiar Psyche of the American Assassin

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It was an outdoor political event, held in grim economic times, and the gunman had the perfect angle. He got off five shots at close range. Had a woman not jostled his arm and an alert bystander not tackled him before he could reload, Giuseppe Zangara, an Italian immigrant and unemployed bricklayer, almost certainly would have assassinated President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose paralyzed legs left him unable to run for cover.

The shooting in Miami in 1933, which left the mayor of Chicago dead, took place two weeks before FDR was sworn in as president at the depth of the Depression. Roosevelt, who was not especially popular before the attack, suddenly was seen across the country as having been spared by God for a purpose. His New Deal program sailed through Congress in his storied first 100 days, a sign that even failed assassination attempts can shape our politics. Like so many American assassins, Zangara was delusional; he said he shot Roosevelt because “my stomach hurts.”

President Obama was right last week to focus his thoughts—and ours—on the victims of the Tucson rampage and the lives they led. Those who gathered that day were doing something fundamentally American: they were meeting with their elected representative at a “Congress on Your Corner” event, participating in the give-and-take of the democratic process. For nearly 200 years, Americans have also been rightly haunted by that strange subspecies of citizen that is their opposite: those who see killing political leaders as a better form of self-expression. They are a sorry lot, mostly a collection of sexually frustrated loners and misfits united only by their common background in social isolation. But they, too, are a longstanding part of the American fabric.

They may have something to teach the rest of us, however unintentionally, about the consequences of our atomized country. Where political violence in other countries is nearly always associated with extremist movements, religious fundamentalism, or criminal organizations, American assassins are usually peculiar stalkers defined less by ideology than vague political and personal grievances.

Jared Lee Loughner would seem to be just the latest to fit this American profile. The 22-year-old gunman killed six people, including federal Judge John Roll and 9-year-old Christina Green, and wounded 14, among them Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Wielding a Glock semiautomatic, the assassin fired 30 rounds in a few seconds outside a Tucson supermarket. His mugshot, with that twisted smile and weirdly sparkling eyes, told you almost everything you needed to know about the coherence of his motives.

The brilliance of our Constitution and the political system it shaped has always rested uneasily beside a troubling tradition of lethal violence. This nation was born in armed revolution, an idea not lost on Loughner or most of the other assassins of the past. We carved a frontier and pushed Native Americans off their lands with the gun, which assumed a mythic place in America’s definition of itself. The dismissive “cowboy” critique so popular abroad is a cartoon; winning the West has a more winning quality than the revisionists allow. But even Americans who cherish their Second Amendment protections must know that these rights have at times eased the path to mayhem. So does our refusal to confront the stigma of mental illness with the funding and laws necessary to keep paranoid schizophrenics in treatment.

The Tucson shootings wounded all members of the collective American family, so ably represented by the president last week. But for those over 50, assassination carries a special dread. The nearly two decades between President Kennedy’s murder in Dallas in 1963 and the attempt on President Reagan’s life in Washington in 1981 were something approaching an Age of Assassination. Among prominent figures killed, wounded, or shot at in those years were Malcolm X (1965), James Meredith (1966), Martin Luther King (1968), Robert F. Kennedy (1968), George Wallace (1972), President Gerald Ford (twice in 1975), George Moscone and Harvey Milk (1978), Vernon Jordan (1980), and John Lennon (1980).

Since the attempt on Reagan, presidents have been relatively safe, even as mentally disturbed gunmen sprayed their bullets more randomly at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, and elsewhere. It’s more difficult than ever for potential assassins to penetrate the Secret Service, which has developed sophisticated ways of protecting the president and his family. As recently as the 1970s, it was possible for invited guests to enter presidential events without going through metal detectors. Now even his closest aides had best not forget their IDs. (Party crashers who managed to attend a state dinner in 2009 led to an even greater tightening of security.) But members of Congress, governors, and celebrities are still accessible to the public. The fear today is that copycat assassins or mentally unstable individuals, feasting on a steady diet of vitriol, may initiate a new round of prolonged political violence.

It’s often impossible to cite specific, direct causes for individual episodes of mayhem. Most people can hear repeated references to comments like “If not ballots, bullets” (Florida radio talk-show host Joyce Kaufman) or “Tiller is a baby killer” (a reference to Dr. George Tiller, murdered by an anti-abortion activist) or “Second Amendment remedies” (Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle) and do nothing violent. Still, Arizona alone is home to roughly 21,000 schizophrenics, according to the calculations of Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center, and about 10 percent of them are potentially dangerous. When they explode, they could be responding to the voices in their heads, or the voices on the radio (or in books and online), or, most likely, some cacophony of voices within and without.

An “Insurrectionism Timeline” posted by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence cites more than 100 examples of incitement (gun sights on congressional maps weren’t threatening enough to make the list) and direct threats of bodily harm in the last two and a half years. Just two days before the Tucson attack, police arrested a man for threatening to shoot members of the staff of Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado. Three days after Giffords and the others were attacked, police took a man into custody after he allegedly made threatening phone calls to the office of Rep. Jim McDermott, suggesting he deserved to die for voting against the extension of the Bush tax cuts.

Loughner’s motives were less coherent, but that doesn’t mean his heinous act was nonpolitical. This was not a case of a lunatic going berserk and shooting up a random shopping center. Loughner felt aggrieved by what he considered to be Giffords’s failure to answer a question he asked her at a previous community meeting in 2007. He obsessed over his desire for vengeance (“Die bitch!” read one of the missives recovered from his personal possessions) and apparently plotted the attack in advance. By aiming for a political leader, he moved from the ranks of mass murderer to assassin.

The Tucson gunman’s web rants (“It’s possible to overthrow a government and change the currency,” he wrote on Earth Empires, an online forum) are typical of the mixture of paranoid delusion and crackpot politics that has long characterized American assassins. Like so many of his infamous predecessors, Loughner didn’t finish school, couldn’t hold a job (he lost his position as a volunteer dog walker because he insisted on walking the dogs near a toxic-waste dump), engaged in petty lawbreaking (defacing traffic signs), and underwent a rapid personality transformation not long before his monstrous act.

Abroad, the maladjusted are more likely to be watched over by families that have lived in the same towns for generations. But the United States has always been a rootless place. In the 20th century, of those trying so desperately to change history by shooting the president, only Lee Harvey Oswald had a wife, children, and a steady job at the time he pulled the trigger. Looking back further, only John Wilkes Booth, a major stage actor, had a successful career before his crime. And despite the conspiracy theories that pop up after every presidential assassination attempt, only Booth was part of a proven plot. He was more like an assassin from another country, as in some ways he was—the Confederacy.

A few other assassinations were also largely political. George Clark, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, shot James Hinds, a Reconstruction-era congressman from Arkansas—the only member of the House of Representatives ever to be assassinated. The anarchist Leon Czolgosz killed President William McKinley in 1901, and in 1954, Puerto Rican separatists were arrested after they opened fire on the floor of Congress, wounding five members of the House in what today would be called an act of terrorism. The 1968 assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy by Sirhan Sirhan, who pulled the trigger in a Los Angeles hotel on the first anniversary of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, might be seen in the same political category.

Almost every other American assassination has been at least partly the product of mental illness, which often surfaces or worsens between ages 18 and 30, when young people leave home for the first time and confront the stress of adulthood. Cultural influences have played an unpredictable role. Mark David Chapman killed John Lennon after being heavily influenced by J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and John Hinckley Jr. wounded President Reagan and his press secretary, Jim Brady, in an effort to impress the actress Jodie Foster when she was attending Yale. Foster had played a child prostitute involved with Travis Bickle, the unhinged assassin played by Robert De Niro in the 1976 film Taxi Driver.

“These types of assassins, these American boys, are really reflective of the youthfulness of our culture,” says Paul Schrader, the screenwriter of Taxi Driver, which was influenced by the story of Arthur Bremer, who paralyzed Governor Wallace for life. “America is a relatively young country, and particularly young men still think that, as Americans, the world should be theirs. And if it isn’t, there’s somebody else to blame.”

A disproportionate number of assassins were bullied or excluded as children or young adults. “In junior high I was an object of pure ridicule,” Bremer recounted in the years before his 2007 parole. Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President James A. Garfield in 1881 after he refused to offer him an ambassadorship for which he had no qualifications, had earlier joined a utopian religious sect called the Oneida Community. But the perfect world its adherents envisioned didn’t include presumptuous oddballs like Guiteau, who was nicknamed “Charles Gitout.”

The rage this kindles sometimes can’t be contained. At 12, Oswald threatened his half-brother’s wife with a knife and struck his mother. A psychiatric assessment when he was young described his “vivid fantasy life, turning on the topics of omnipotence and power, through which he tries to compensate for his present shortcomings and frustrations.” At her sentencing, Sara Jane Moore, who fired at Gerald Ford, described her attempt as “a correct expression of my anger.” Schrader sees a pattern: “If you’re filled with feelings of anger and self-loathing, you want to blame someone else. And people in the public eye are the ones that touch you because they’re bigger than life. They’re your surrogate parents.”

The bounty of America, more than its hardships, can worsen the pain. “Democracy can be cruel to misfits,” says Charles Peters, the 84-year-old founder of The Washington Monthly. “The reason it’s cruel is you’re told you can be anything, and there’s enough evidence around you of people getting ahead that you believe it’s true. So when you don’t, it’s crushing. The more democratic a society, the more humiliating the failure.”

In his Tucson speech, the president reminded the nation that “in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame, but rather how well we have loved.” That warm generosity of spirit—in addition to freedom and ambition, mobility and innovation, and yes, individual isolation—is a vital part of what defines America. No assassin can ever take that away, if we don’t let him.

With McKay Coppins in New York

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