Thursday, July 2, 2009

Assassins and their Fatal Fictions

FindingDulcinea's "On This Day" for July 2 contains several fascinating, little-known facts about the assassination of President Garfield. One that struck me was the defense asserted by assassin Charles Guiteau at his trial: “Some of these days instead of saying ‘Guiteau the assassin’, they will say ‘Guiteau the patriot.’”

Guiteau believed that the murder was an act in the public interest. This belief is hardly exceptional as assassins go. Self-delusion of a noble, heroic purpose is a common thread connecting murderous lone actors of history.

What convinces an assassin that he’s a national hero? How does one man, out of so many millions who might share similar political beliefs and passions, conclude that it is his destiny to commit murder for the greater good?

Guiteau defended his action as “a political necessity,” and was so confident of general approbation that he instructed General William Tecumseh Sherman, “I am going to the Jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the Jail at once.”

A prior findingDulcinea “On This Day” about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln reveals a similar theme, as John Wilkes Booth was shocked at the public’s grief and failure to applaud the murder. His letters provide disturbing insight into his motivations, such as this excerpt printed by the New York Times: “When a country like this spurns justice from her side, She forfeits the allegiance of every honest freeman, and should leave him untrammeled by any fealty soever, to act, as his conscience may approve.”

The recent assassination of abortion doctor George Tiller once again echoed this same sad, deluded tale. Although many tried to link the murder to the heated rhetoric of our cable news culture, only one man translated this passion into violence.

FindingDulcinea Senior Writer Shannon Firth analyzed Tiller's murder and explored the motives of assassins, detailing the three types categorized by author Kris Hollington. There are “wolves,” who seek notoriety, “jackals,” who are hired hands, and finally “foxes,” who are “novices hoping to make a political statement.”

According to Hollington, these foxes are intensely passionate, but are also “ordinary, unremarkable people, often failures: the antithesis of the men and women they try to kill.” Although they justify their actions in political and often religious language, “it’s all within the troubled mind of the lone individual… almost a movie in their mind.”

Do their personal failures, then, prod them towards an alternate reality, in which they can play the film-star heroes? John Hinckley, Jr., possibly inspired by the movie Taxi Driver, believed that by shooting Ronald Reagan he could win the love of actress Jodie Foster. He later explained himself, according to PBS, with this rumination on fiction: “The line dividing life and art can be invisible. After seeing enough hypnotizing movies and reading enough magical books, a fantasy life develops which can either be harmless or quite dangerous.”

I suppose heroism, and even history, is always something of a fiction, a combination of reality and the myths built around it. But I can’t stop wondering what it takes to push an individual into a myth so fatal, so extreme, and so disconnected from the society he believes he is saving.

No comments: