American Assassins

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, January 24, 2011 | Go to article overview

American Assassins


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


Byline: Jonathan Alter

It seems the gunman was a crazed loner, but he's one in a long line. What makes our political killers different.

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

American Assassins
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.