Is Hinckley Ready For Society?

On the evening of November 22--the 40th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination--anchor Brian Williams did a segment on the assassination for NBC Nightly News that can best be summed up as "What if?" What if President Kennedy had lived, he asked. How would the world, and history be different? Obviously, Lyndon Johnson would not have taken office in 1964. Maybe he would never have become president. What would have happened with the Vietnam War? Would there have been fewer deaths if John Kennedy had lived? What about civil rights? Would we have moved farther, faster?

That got me thinking in "what if" terms about the day my father was shot: March 31, 1981. So many things could have changed if John Hinckley Jr. had succeeded in his mission to assassinate the president. If the devastator bullets he had methodically loaded into his gun had exploded a little differently--if that one fragment had gone a quarter of an inch farther and entered my father's heart--history would have unfolded differently. As it is, John Hinckley Jr. changed many lives that day--none as much as my father's press secretary Jim Brady's. What would Mr. Brady's life be like today if a bullet hadn't shattered his brain?

On a more personal front, I don't know who we would be as a family now if my father--who was Hinckley's primary target, even though he shot everyone else out of the way--had died that day. Would we still have mended what was torn between us if we didn't have these long years of his illness, and the change of perspective that comes along with that? I don't have any answers, just questions.

John Hinckley Jr. is fresh in my mind right now. Hearings took place last week in a D.C. courtroom to determine whether or not he will be allowed unsupervised visits into the community of Virginia and Washington D.C. They will resume, and very probably be concluded, this Wednesday--the day before Thanksgiving. It is possible that the judge will permit these visits, and allow them to begin immediately. In other words, for the first time in more than two decades, Hinckley might walk off the grounds of St. Elizabeth's this Thursday without hospital escorts to have Thanksgiving dinner with his parents.

History is often changed by a lone individual who steps out of the shadows and aims a weapon--John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan. Hinckley wanted to be on that list of presidential assassins; he missed by less than an inch. What if he hadn't? Less than four months after my father took the oath of office, George Herbert Walker Bush would have been sworn in. It is no secret that my political views differ from those of my father, but two towering accomplishments transcend our political differences. A long, cold war between America and the Soviet Union ended because of my father and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Berlin Wall came down. Would either have happened if George Bush Sr. had assumed office in 1981? As I said, there are no answers. History is littered with "what ifs" and will remain so.

The assassins and would-be assassins who are written into history alongside the political figures they targeted will never leave our minds. We are destined to remember them whether we want to or not. We would never even have known their names if they hadn't decided to kill a president (or, in the case of Robert Kennedy, a presidential candidate). We would probably never have noticed them on a busy street or in a crowd. They are unremarkable people--physically unimposing, with nothing that makes heads turn or passersby take note. They blend, melt, become almost invisible--until they raise an arm and fire a weapon. On March 31, 1981, Hinckley stood in the crowd outside the Washington Hilton for quite a while, just waiting. No one seemed to notice him. He blended in, as innocuous as the pale gray sky that hung over the nation's capitol that day.

He will never blend in again. I feel enormous compassion for the judge presiding over this hearing. He is bound by the oath that he took as a judge to weigh both sides, and he is bound by the verdict handed down in 1981: not guilty, by reason of insanity. If Barry Levine, Hinckley's attorney, and the doctors Levine called to testify make their case well, Hinckley will be granted unsupervised overnight visits in the same area where the Bradys still live.

Maybe Barry Levine would like to make the call to the Brady residence--to let them know that one day, when they are out having brunch or dinner, they could look across the restaurant and see Hinckley dining with his parents. Maybe he'd like to call Jodie Foster, who now has children, and tell her not to worry, that the judge believed that Hinckley is over his obsession with her now. Maybe he'd like to phone my mother and explain that, next time she finds herself in Washington D.C., she shouldn't be alarmed if she spots John Hinckley Jr. strolling around.

Or maybe he'd rather do nothing and just pray to God he's right.