It was thirty years ago last week that John Hinckley, Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan following a speech Reagan delivered to the AFL-CIO leadership in Washington DC. Even as a child during that time, it was not hard to notice that Reagan came to the presidency with great fanfare. He entered during a hostage crisis that became the first daily reported non-war event…today with 24 hour news services there are many on-going stories. There might be a difference between the attempt on Reagan’s life and the tragic attempts on public officials since (such as the shooting involving Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords). Are all would-be assassins mentally detached? Or are some just evil?
When Reagan was shot, even amid his bold political ideology, the story was all about Hinckley. Hinckley, it was reported over and over, was a deranged Travis Bickle-type of character that was less concerned with Reagan’s policies and more concerned with impressing actress Jodie Foster (talk about barking up the wrong tree). Reagan’s supply-side economics and anti-communist rhetoric had a few detractors, but his assassination attempt was not reported as a symptom of those policies.
Today, however, the news goes beyond describing the violent offender, and looks to attach the victim’s politics (or the surrounding political dialogue) to the tragedy. They ask questions like, ‘Was the shooter on the other side of the political spectrum?’ ‘Was this a revenge plot because of policy?’ All deranged people have reasons, but by focusing on their reasoning as though it could make any sense, the reporting delineates the severity of what really matters…which is how unhinged this person had to be to carry out such an act. Maybe we are looking for politics where there is none.
“What happened to just being crazy?” asked comedian Chris Rock after the media tried to explain the shootings at Columbine High School. Right…why is that no longer enough for us? Hinckley, Mark David Chapman, Jared Lee Loughner…none of them had reasons worthy of a 24 hour news cycle. To give their reasoning that much attention is almost giving them a voice. We want to find out how it happened and how to avoid it in the future, but Loughner was no victim of harsh political discourse between two opposing parties. Watch his self-produced, completely incoherent, video of how he hated his school. None of these guys were society’s fault, they were their fault.
Then there are the politically motivated assassination attempts, such as was the case with former Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin. Should politically motivated murderers be denied the description of mentally delusional, and instead just classified as evil? Rabin’s killer was politically motivated as he later explained that the Oslo Peace Accords were why he murdered Rabin. But we might be looking too far into a person’s politics in many other cases as a means to define a tragedy.