Political Assassinations: Afterword
My 2017 book Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders concludes with an Afterword discussing the difficulties in generalizing about assassins and their motives.
Categorizing assailants is a potentially perilous exercise because understanding the intricacies of the human heart is never easy. Criminal law attempts to assign penalties to offenders based on whether they possess the requisite mens rea (guilty mind) at the time an action occurs—as well as whether their conduct (actus reus) fit the elements of a crime—but this business of evaluating intentions is always an uncertain endeavor. Educated guesses must be made, often based on incomplete, missing, or conflicting data. It is an art, not a science, and judgments are open to interpretation and dispute.
Even if the motives of assailants can be understood and categorized, the next question remains problematic. Does studying the behavior of past actors allow researchers to predict the behavior of future actors? The answer invariably is “no.” The varieties of human experience do not lend themselves to definitive prognostication. So-called “warning signs” of mental illness or aggressive egocentric neediness do not indicate an assassin in the making. For every disturbed individual who acts violently against a public figure, untold thousands suffer silently, act out against friends and family members, or seek and receive professional treatment. Philip K. Dick imagined a world where persons could be arrested for their future crimes, but the criminal justice system had not advanced (or devolved, as the case may be) to that extent quite yet.
Having said these things, figuring out why historical persons did what they did can yield insight into patterns of behavior. The purpose of exploring the crimes of past attackers, as with any trek through history, is to understand, to the extent possible, what happened and why. All history is an effort to make sense of events and the people who participated in them. If subsequent writers take issue with the conclusions, they can and should make the case for accepting alternate explanations. History therefore becomes a conversation among and between defenders of differing schools of thought.
Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History argues for a school of thought based on human psychology. An actor who strikes out against a political figure does so for reasons that can be classified in one of five categories. As discussed in the Introduction, Type 1 actors are rational persons who assail a public figure for relatively straightforward reasons—namely, they wish to institute political changes. Type 2 actors are needy individuals who seek to prove something to a significant other. They may possess political motives, but such considerations are secondary. The main goal of a Type 2 personality is to fill an emotional need through violence. To use the colloquial expression, Type 3 actors are psychopaths who believe that nothing matters and existence is a curse. These nihilists seek to visit their misery on others. Type 4 actors are cognitively impaired—“crazy,” in modern parlance. Not surprisingly, wide variations exist in the nature and extent of the impairment, but all Type 4 actors suffer from some form of mental illness. The Type 5 category is reserved for assailants whose motives are unknown, mixed, or simply not properly classified elsewhere.
No doubt a discerning reader can take issue with some or all of these characterizations. Is Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy’s assassin, so distinct from Sirhan Sirhan, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin, that the two men belong in separate categories? A case can be made that both assailants were driven by their egocentric needs to shoot a member of the Kennedy family, therefore placing both in the Type 2 category. Alternatively, a critic might argue that they belong in the Type 1 or Type 3 category. On and on the debate continues.
The purpose of placing the actors in the categories listed herein is to make a plausible case for understanding why these marginalized figures believed that is was necessary to employ violence. The majority of people are socialized to obey the law, acquire an education, take part of social activities, seek employment, support their families, and eke out whatever measure of happiness they can find in their lives. If meaning is to be found, it is found in living a life in accordance with the time, place, and customs of society. Yet the men and women portrayed in my book were not content to fall in line with societal dictates. Whether they suffered from mental illness, social ostracism, or nihilistic tendencies, they thought that violence somehow would improve their lot. If only we could convince such lost souls not to act on their illusions, history would change for the better.
Aside from focusing on the individual actors, a broader line of inquiry concerns why so many American political figures have been the targets of violence. Commentators have examined the historical record and argued that individuals take up arms for a variety of reasons aside from mental illness. First, they live in a society that glorifies violence. Television programs, films, podcasts, social media postings, newspapers, articles, and books report on killers with glee, transforming violence into an acceptable form of human interaction. Serial killers and infamous assassins become celebrities in a culture that worships celebrity. In the news business, if it bleeds, it leads.
The coarse nature of American political discourse encourages marginalized people to act out their grievances, or so the argument goes. A polarized electorate that refuses to consider the merits of opposing parties and ideals, a rapacious media driven to cover “gotcha” moments emphasizing the peccadilloes of public figures, and a public with an-ever dwindling attention span hungry for titillating stories ensures that narratives grounded in the least common denominator receive maximum attention. For a person already predisposed to act on their violent predilections, incendiary rhetoric exerts a powerful influence, providing a tacit permission slip for someone of a less-than-healthy psychological state to take up arms against a sea of troubles.
Some critics contend that the ease with which anyone in the United States can acquire firearms or bomb-making materials facilitates violence. Such an observation quickly degenerates into the old adage that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Perhaps the cliché holds a measure of wisdom, but it is equally true that people with guns kill people with more precision. Yet recognizing a problem and fixing it are separate endeavors. Whether strict gun control measure would prevent assassinations of the types described in this book is doubtful. Most of the people discussed in these pages were committed actors who planned their crimes and pursued their prey with single-minded purposefulness. Their inability to acquire a weapon on one occasion probably would not have frustrated their scheme indefinitely. They likely would have found another means of acting.
Commentators sometimes contend that a more robust mental health system in the United States would ameliorate the underlying causes of some political assassinations. Although the stigma of seeking out and obtaining help for mental illness has lessened in the twenty-first century compared with times past, no one would argue that everyone who needs treatment receives it. Failure to recognize the need, concerns about costs, and the lack of access to mental health resources are among the many impediments to effective treatment.
Mental diseases are not like physical diseases. A broken arm is relatively easy to diagnose and treat. Cause and effect are more or less linear. Mental illnesses, by contrast, wear many faces; many are hidden from view. Too often a person who needs treatment does not receive it. Even when he does, the variables of the human personality cannot be isolated with precision. A patient can relapse, suffer from a different problem, or escape detection. Even when a person receives treatment, the process is not always straightforward, and a “cure” is not guaranteed. As Dennis Sweeney, Allard Lowenstein’s killer, memorably noted when he explained how he tricked mental health professionals who were worried about his delusion that he received radio transmissions in his head, “Just don’t talk about your transmissions.”
To understand the how and why of political assassinations and attempts is to look through a glass darkly. Patterns emerge even if they are not always clear and distinct. The purpose of my book was to offer one means of recognizing those patterns. It remains to be seen whether such recognition can lead to improved outcomes in future cases.