Tucson: How Culture Can Shape Killers

Rancorous rhetoric provides the context for a mentally unstable would-be assassin to act out.


Over a long academic career, I have researched and written about 21 American assassins, would-be assassins, and domestic terrorists. It is pure nonsense to suggest, as some have, that the political environment has nothing to do with the actions of very disturbed individuals — as the Tucson shooter, Jared L. Loughner appears to be — who plan and attack political figures in public venues. I’ve identified four types of perpetrators in these troubling events. They range from rational political extremists, like Robert Kennedy’s assassin Sirhan Sirhan, through two types of emotional disturbance that differ only in degree, to those who are clearly psychotic, like Theodore Roosevelt’s would-be assassin John Shrank. Loughner’s actions fit the emotionally disturbed pattern that includes President Reagan’s attacker, John W. Hinckley, Jr., and Arthur Bremer, presidential candidate George Wallace’s would-be assassin.

There are many similarities, but let me mention the most significant. Both Hinckley and Bremer considered the option of mass murder before selecting their political victims — Hinckley on the Yale campus, Bremer at a busy Milwaukee intersection. Then both shifted their attention to well-known political figures. Hinckley, after stalking President Jimmy Carter, selected his more popular successor, Ronald Reagan. Bremer, after stalking President Nixon unsuccessfully, shifted his attention to Nixon’s challengers in the 1972 election, George Wallace and George McGovern. Bremer chose Wallace only because he was polling better than McGovern. It was their victims’ political popularity that made them attractive targets. What motivates this type of would-be assassin is the notoriety that comes with either killing a great number of ordinary people or a prominent individual. Loughner went for both.

Sign up for weekly ND20 highlights, mind-blowing stats, event alerts, and reading/film/music recs.

The connection between cultural influences and heinous acts can be clearly identified in the case of Bremer and his link to the film Taxi Driver, featuring Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, the eerie cab driver/assassin/mass murderer. In developing the Bickle character, Paul Schrader’s screenplay shows the influence of Arthur Bremer’s own “An Assassin’s Diary” — a record of the musings of a troubled young man intent on violence. Art then influenced the life of John Hinckley, who saw the film multiple times and fell under its spell to the extent that, in dress and behavior, he began to take on the attributes of the Bickle character. Hinckley’s well-known romantic interest in the actress Jodi Foster began with his infatuation with Iris, the teenage prostitute Foster played in the film. One cannot say whether the final bloody scenes in the film, as Bickle rescues Iris from her pimps, were contemplated by Hinckley as he considered mass murder at Yale and, ultimately, as he opened fire on President Reagan and others on March 30, 1981. But the influence on his general mentality is undeniable.

For Hinckley, Bremer, and — until the evidence is in, I’m willing to bet — Jared Loughner, their victims become trophies in a suicidal quest for lead-story notoriety. In Tucson, Gabrielle Giffords was Loughner’s primary target, the first to be shot. As Giffords has recognized and acknowledged, she had been targeted in a particularly toxic re-election campaign. For example, in addition to being placed in Sarah Palin’s “cross hairs”, her Tea Party-backed opponent ran the following invitation on his campaign website: “Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”

It is easy to see how the threats and rancor of that time could have provided a facilitating context for an angry, depressed person to act out. Someone like the shooters at Columbine and Virginia Tech or Jared Loughner — troubled young men intent on violence, who had easy access to exceedingly deadly weapons.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.