Updated at 4:45 p.m. on January 13.
The world was going to recognize him, at long last. Humanity would, in the end, delight in the boldness of his actions. A failure all his life, the would-be assassin was enraged at being ignored, contemptuous of all those around him who slighted his superior understanding of human existence.
He wasn’t especially political, but he recorded incoherent political ramblings, demented shards of issues patched together from the rhetoric of the time. Alone, jobless, and friendless, he blamed everybody but himself for his personal miseries. And the gunman appeared to think that his actions were permissible in a virulent political environment in which adversaries were routinely cast as evil or immoral or treasonous.
Based on what law-enforcement officials and reporters know so far from interviewing his former friends and reading his Internet postings, many of these attributes would seem to describe Jared Lee Loughner. Before firing at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on January 8, Loughner obsessed over what a “fake” she was because she did not sufficiently answer a nonsensical question he had asked her at a campaign rally, Loughner’s former friend, Bryce Tierney, told Mother Jones magazine. Loughner believed that government is “f—king us over,” Tierney said. “Die Bitch,” Loughner wrote on a letter from Giffords’s office that police turned up.
But this description also fits another wannabe assassin from 130 years earlier, a man who appears to have been at least as deranged as Loughner: Charles Guiteau, who fired two bullets into President Garfield on July 2, 1881. Like Loughner, Guiteau was a failure who had no job, no friends, and had been dumped by his significant other (in Guiteau’s case, his wife; in Loughner’s, a girlfriend).
Only late in a desultory career did Guiteau begin to discover and opine on political issues, as he sought to benefit personally from a bitter factional battle within the Republican Party at a time of economic distress not unlike today. In the end, Guiteau grew so obsessed with the idea of killing Garfield that he wrote that the assassination was “not murder” at all but “a political necessity,” according to Famous Trials, a website maintained by Douglas Linder, a law professor at the University of Missouri.
The political issues of that earlier era—post-Civil War America—have long since been forgotten. And Guiteau, when he is remembered at all, is often dismissed in the history books as a “disappointed office seeker.” He was a lone loony, in other words, divorced not only from reality but also from his times.
No assassin is an island, no matter how “nuts.”
This is, perhaps, the most common meme in official histories of American assassinations. Even the Warren Commission report on President Kennedy’s murder, in surveying the killings in the Jim Crow South, judged that those gunmen were “acting alone” even though all were clearly motivated by racism, says Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates, a liberal-leaning think tank. Today, the antigovernment rhetoricians of the tea party movement and the ranters-for-rent who populate cable TV are likewise insisting that Loughner had nothing to do with their groups, or their platforms, or what was said on their TV shows.
“There’s no evidence that I know of that this person was anything except nuts,” Newt Gingrich, the maestro of the immoderate sound bite, told one interviewer.
Perhaps. But let’s not deceive ourselves: When it comes to political violence and assassination, the times do count for something. No assassin is an island, no matter how “nuts.” And although historical and sociological data are scant, a number of historians, sociologists, and psychologists believe that a correlation exists between periods of angry or intense political divisions in American history and political violence, particularly killings. This was especially true of the post-Civil War period; the turn of the 20th century, when anarchists were prevalent (one of them killed President McKinley); the late 1960s, which witnessed massive upheaval and a spate of assassinations and shootings; and the 1990s, which spawned militia movements that culminated in the Oklahoma City bombing. And it is perhaps true today.
Loughner’s rampage may have been the first assassination attempt on a high U.S. public official in decades—since John Hinckley shot President Reagan in 1981—but other acts of political violence have occurred recently: the cases of Joseph Stack, an antigovernment zealot who flew his plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, last February, killing himself and an IRS official; and a neo-Nazi named Richard Poplawski who killed three police officers in Pittsburgh in April 2009, telling friends he was afraid that President Obama would take away his guns.
“Most of our violence in America comes from psychopathology, not politics,” says Jack Levin, a sociologist and criminologist at Northeastern University. “But when political violence does occur, it does seem to happen during periods of economic and political tension, controversy, and intense debate when people feel threatened, when they feel they must defend economic interests, their culture, or religion.” The difference between would-be political assassins or perpetrators of violence and ordinary sociopathic killers who have no conscience at all, Levin says, is that “not only do the former have a conscience but they believe sincerely they are doing something entirely justified morally.” And those views are often encouraged by “nasty, dehumanizing rhetoric that justifies in the mind of the shooter that he is the victim, not the perpetrator.”
This article appears in the January 15, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.