John Hinckley may have been the one to pull the trigger, but who’s to blame for his anger?
The attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan marks the fourteenth assault on the life of an American President or Presidential aspirant (two were directed against President Gerald Ford). Four of them were successful. Three Presidential aspirants, in-cluding Huey Long, were targets. In no other Western nation has the life of the head of state been so perilous. (We are also the only society that has a steady diet of mass murders; assassination attempts are only the tip of the iceberg.)
In this century virtually all of the deeds have been done by a procession of psychopaths, shrewd enough to outwit the Secret Service but mad enough to make a bid for glory by slaying the leader of the tribe. Taken as a whole, they have not been after political power, Brutus-style, but rather have been a breed of alienated grudge-bearers, hatching twisted schemes in lonely hotel rooms, seeking self-transcendence (or immolation) in a blaze of nihilism.
What is it in our society that encourages the sick among us to act out their power fanta-sies with such tragic results? If, instead of sounding the ritual denunciations of the mon-ster in our midst, we could seriously pursue the answer to that question, perhaps we would learn something important about our society, our culture and politics.
Still, for the short run, there are some obvious things to be said. We could not help but notice, for example, that the only public figure who did not perform the ritual handwring-ing was the President himself, who grinned (we can assume) the old seamed grin, how-ever weakly, and told his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” and who begged the surgeons: “Please tell me you’re Republicans.” The President, before his collapse, acted as though he were a featured guest at a Friars Club roast, and one half-expected to read that upon awakening from the anesthesia he had quipped: “Where’s the rest of me?” His resilience, relief at being alive, grace under pressure — whatever it was — provided a brief celebration of the tenacity of life and a reassuring glimpse at an appealing aspect of Ronald Reagan’s character.
Nevertheless, more needs to be done toward reconciling the conflict between the free-wheeling, gregarious style of our politicians and the requirements of security. Accom-modating the demands for an open political style by leaders in a democracy with the need to guarantee the safety of our charismatic pols is the kind of short-run problem that may require a long-run trial-and-error solution. But an immediate and overdue step would be to pass national handgun control legislation — favored, according to the polls, by a majority of the population — which seems to gain a place in the bipartisan agenda only after assassination attempts.