American Assassins

Article excerpt

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. …