In the Line of Fire

The attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six bystanders has again cranked up the old discussion about the real "American exceptionalism," our addiction to violence.

Certainly, in no other developed, democratic country on earth do angry, alienated people roam around armed to the teeth with military-style automatic weapons. Explanations of American violence often point to the frontier experience in which settlers lived without the protection of police and courts. In that environment, the theory goes, every man was personally responsible for the defense of himself and his household, and for exacting justice from wrongdoers. And the theory isn't entirely useless. The frontier experience is certainly not ancient history in Arizona, which only became a state in 1912. And many of the most dangerous cities in America for violent crime are in the old frontier territories of the South, Midwest, or West.

Political assassinations are a constant theme in American history, too. Four American presidents (Lincoln, McKinley, Garfield, and Kennedy) have been murdered in office. One (Reagan) was seriously wounded. Someone took two close-range shots at Andrew Jackson, but the gun misfired both times. Twice President Gerald Ford was saved, at the last moment, from gun-wielding assassins. Then there are the other major cultural and political figures gunned down in the 20th century -- Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, even John Lennon.

Unfortunately, the political assassin has become a stock figure in American culture. He haunts recent decades of American movies from The Parallax View to JFK and In the Line of Fire and many more. But the popular image of the assassin can be boiled down to two archetypes -- the lone nut and the political pawn -- as typified, respectively, by Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, a disturbed Vietnam vet played by Robert De Niro who plans to kill a popular U.S. senator, mainly as a way to purify himself, and The Manchurian Candidate, a Korean War vet programmed to kill and used, by his own mother, as the trigger in a plot to overthrow the U.S. government.

You can trace those archetypes through the last two centuries of U.S. history. The political assassins/political pawns? Clearly John Wilkes Booth, Leon Czolgosz (the anarchist who shot McKinley), Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, and the Nation of Islam hit men who took down Malcolm X ... and maybe Sirhan Sirhan (RFK’s assassin). The Travis Bickles? Maybe Charles Guiteau (the frustrated job-seeker who killed Garfield), certainly Arthur Bremer (who tried to kill George Wallace), John Hinckley Jr. (of the Reagan attempt), and Mark David Chapman (who killed Lennon).

In the first days after the Giffords shooting, liberals made some attempt to politicize the Tucson slaughter, and maybe even cast Sarah Palin as The Manchurian Candidate's manipulating mother figure. But as we learned more about the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, that theory pretty much fell apart. Plainly, Jared Loughner is a Travis Bickle. In fact, the parallels are startling. True, Loughner is no war veteran; the army turned him down for being a pothead. But his descent into inappropriate and irrational behavior mirrors Bickle's path, as does his long-term obsession with a local politician and the self-purification campaign of his last days -- giving up drugs and alcohol, working out, shaving his head (actually, Bickle went for a Mohawk).

And at the tragic end of the story, the questions Jared Loughner raises for us are the same ones director Martin Scorsese raised in Taxi Driver. How does it happen that some of us can grow so far apart from each other, so alienated from anything that smacks of a common life, that we can see violence as the only remaining form of communion? And, just as crucially, how can the rest of us turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the Travis Bickles and Jared Loughners among us? For that American alienation is the real killer that stalks our past, and our present.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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