The Cloudy Logic of 'Political' Shootings

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After this horrible news from Tucson....

... let me amplify something I said half-coherently in a live conversation with Guy Raz on All Things Considered a little while ago. My intended point was:

Shootings of political figures are by definition "political." That's how the target came to public notice; it is why we say "assassination" rather than plain murder.

But it is striking how rarely the "politics" of an assassination (or attempt) match up cleanly with the main issues for which a public figure has stood. Some killings reflect "pure" politics: John Wilkes Booth shooting Abraham Lincoln, the German officers who tried to kill Hitler and derail his war plans. We don't know exactly why James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King, but it must have had a lot to do with civil rights.

There is a longer list of odder or murkier motives:
- Leo Ryan, the first (and, we hope, still the only) Representative to be killed in the line of duty, was gunned down in Guyana in 1978 for an investigation of the Jim Jones/Jonestown cult, not any "normal" political issue.
 
- Sirhan Sirhan horribly transformed American politics by killing Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, but Sirhan's political causes had little or nothing to do with what RFK stood for to most Americans.

- So too with Arthur Bremer, who tried to kill George C. Wallace in 1972 and left him paralyzed.

- The only known reason for John Hinckley's shooting of Ronald Reagan involves Jodie Foster.

- It's not often remembered now, but Manson family member Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme tried to shoot Gerald Ford, again for reasons that would mean nothing to most Americans of that time.

- When Harry Truman was shot at (and a policeman was killed) on the sidewalk outside the White Blair House, the attackers were concerned not about Cold War policies or Truman's strategy in Korea but about Puerto Rican independence.

- The assassinations of William McKinley and James Garfield were also "political" but not in a way that matched the main politics of that time. The list could go on.

So the train of logic is:
1) anything that can be called an "assassination" is inherently political;
2) very often the "politics" are obscure, personal, or reflecting mental disorders rather than "normal" political disagreements. But now a further step,
3) the political tone of an era can have some bearing on violent events. The Jonestown/Ryan and Fromme/Ford shootings had no detectable source in deeper political disagreements of that era. But the anti-JFK hate-rhetoric in Dallas before his visit was so intense that for decades people debated whether the city was somehow "responsible" for the killing. (Even given that Lee Harvey Oswald was an outlier in all ways.)

That's the further political ramification here. We don't know why the Tucson killer did what he did. If he is like Sirhan, we'll never "understand." But we know that it has been a time of extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery, including SarahPac's famous bulls-eye map of 20 Congressional targets to be removed -- including Rep. Giffords. It is legitimate to discuss whether there is a connection between that tone and actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be. At a minimum, it will be harder for anyone to talk -- on rallies, on cable TV, in ads -- about "eliminating" opponents, or to bring rifles to political meetings, or to say "don't retreat, reload."

Meanwhile condolences on this tragedy, and deepest hopes for the recovery of all who still have a chance.


Tumbnail image credit: Wikimedia Commons
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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