Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Poltical Assassination and Motivation

Randall Stephens

On November 23, 1963 the New York Times announced "Leftist Accused: Figure in a Pro-Castro Group is Charged--Policeman Slain." Will Fritz, head of the Homicide Bureau, Dallas Police Department, linked Lee Harvey Oswald to the left-wing "Fair Play for Cuba Committee." Such connections proved more complicated than originally imagined. Oswald lied and was, by any account, a shiftless loser. Journalists and commentators grasped for a motive in the chaotic hours and days after President Kennedy's assassination. Texas, and Dallas in particular, was a hotbed of anti-Kennedy feeling and theories of a right-wing plot circulated widely. (Replace Texas then with Arizona now and some striking similarities in public discussion are apparent. Tea Partiers and John Birchers . . . anti-immigration and anti-communism . . .)

There was, in fact, enough hard-right political terrorism in the South to make such views seem credible enough. The Klan harassed and threatened civil rights workers and dynamited churches and schools. Pundits called Birmingham "Bombingham." In rare cases, gunmen assassinated black leaders and activists. The murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968 created a political firestorm and produced innumerable theories as Kennedy's murder had less than five years before. After King's death in Memphis riots erupted across the country's cities and conspiracy theories of Klan involvement and a government assassin gripped the imagination of Americans roiled by the events of a turbulent year. Writing in Life magazine in June 1968 Paul O'Neil observed, "No real criminal organization conspired with [James Earl] Ray," King's alleged killer. Ray was, in O'Neil's words, like Robert Kennedy's assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, prone to bizarre fantasies and unreal self conceptions.

Medical professionals, journalists, and the general public have often questioned an assassin's sanity. And the current debate over the political motivations of Gabrielle Giffords' mentally unstable shooter parallel related events in history.

Was Leon Czolgosz, who shot and killed President McKinley nearly 110 years ago, insane? The American establishment, observes Eric Rauchway in Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003), could not "admit that a low criminal had accomplished so much, and so from the start they insisted he was insane, and his action an accident of a callous fate" (x).

What of America's most infamous assassin? "One is naturally tempted to ask whether John Wilkes Booth, son of the 'Mad Tragedian,' might have been found insane under existing laws," writes Michael W. Kauffman in American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (New York: Random House, 2005), 353. Wilkes's brother thought madness ran through the male portion of the family. But, in this case, notions of melancholy and madness were closely linked. And diagnosing someone from the the remove of nearly 150 years would certainly be difficult.

Historians often ask why people do the things they do. Is it trickier to answer that question about current figures than about those from ages past? Figuring out the motivations of men and women from long ago, like judging why an unstable young Arizona man went on a shooting spree, can be a tough game. David Hackett Fischer explored motivation in his controversial, argumentative Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper and Row, 1970):

Historians have often used motivational explanations in their work. Almost always, they have used them badly. Problems of motive in academic historiography tend to be hopelessly mired in a sort of simple-minded moralizing which is equally objectionable from an ethical and an empirical point of view. Lord Rosebery once remarked that what the English people really wished to know about Napoleon was whether he was a good man. The same purpose often prevails among professional scholars who are unable to distinguish motivational psychology from moral philosophy, and even unwilling to admit that there can be a distinction at all. Moreover, many scholars tend to find flat, monistic answers to complex motivational problems, which further falsifies their interpretations (187).

But that won't keep Americans from wondering, speculating, and trying to make some sense out of seemingly senseless acts of violence, past or present.


Todd Arrington said...

This is an interesting and timely post that asks some great--though hard to answer--questions. It seems that many so-called political assassins have enough mental health issues to make historians and the public wonder about their true motivation. Was it politics, insanity, or something else? Booth, Czolgosz, and Oswald all had obvious political motivations--avenging the South, anarchy, and communism, respectively.

So did Charles J. Guiteau, assassin of President James A. Garfield. Guiteau belonged to the "Stalwart" faction of the Republican Party and supported U.S. Grant for the party's 1880 presidential nomination. When it went to the "Half-Breed" Garfield instead, Guiteau supported the party's chosen candidate. Guiteau felt his party loyalty entitled him to some government position after Garfield's inauguration. Garfield, however, proceeded to attack and begin to dismantle the patronage system in favor of a merit-based civil service system. Guiteau, not only rejected for employment but also horrified at Garfield's assault on the Stalwarts' nearly sacred patronage system, eventually decided that removing Garfield from the scene and making the Stalwart Chester A. Arthur president was the only way to save the Republican Party and the country.

During Guiteau's trial, he attempted to defend himself and regularly made incoherent outburts during testimony. He attributed his assassination of Garfield to God's will. (To be fair, he also made the very lucid argument that while he did SHOOT Garfield, he didn't KILL him--the doctors had done that.) Guiteau was hanged a year after the shooting.

Was Guiteau insane? That very question inspired an entire book examining his mental state and asking larger questions about insanity and criminal responsibility in the 19th century. (Charles J. Rosenberg, The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau: Psychiatry and Law in the Gilded Age, 1967.)

As Randall Stephens notes, diagnosing a 19th century political assassin is just about impossible. More recent political attackers, however, might prove just as tough to peg as being technically "insane." No matter how enraged we are about any issue, most of us would never dream of opening fire on a crowd in front of a supermarket or flying planes into buildings. When others do so, we immediately say that "he/she/they must be nuts." But are they really? Or is that merely how the rest of us cope with actions and events that are incomprehensible and repugnant to us? I don't know.

This is a really interesting post that compelled me to comment. Also, for another take on assassins and their motivations, check out this article on npr.org:

Randall said...

Todd: Thanks for the very interesting comments here. (I didn't know this about Garfield's assasin.)

You bring up the issue of trying to understand the mind of a subject at such a distance. Psychohistory has gotten a bad wrap since its heyday in the 50s and 60s. But historians need to think about the motivation and the internal world of their subjects.