Opinion: Tucson shootings: Mental illness, not rhetoric, at root of more political assassinations historically


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It’s tempting in the angry aftermath of deadly moments such as Saturday’s shooting of 20 people in Tucson to seize on any convenient, seemingly credible explanation for the inexplicable.

How could someone so young take it upon himself to lash out lethally to kill six innocent people and wound 14 others, all presumably unknown to him, on a sunny Saturday by a grocery ironically named Safeway?


At his initial news conference Saturday, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik could not offer much specific information about the incident, including the accused’s name or motive.

However, the 74-year-old sheriff was somehow repeatedly certain the incident had something to do with overheated political rhetoric in his state and in America today, where grown-ups in public life call each other liars and hostage-takers. While others employ even more vicious vitriol hiding behind the convenient anonymity of the Internet.

While that theory may gain broad traction, at least in these initial days, a look back at prominent assassinations and attempts in U.S. history finds far different common patterns -- more personal or ...

... political motivations with mental illness, prime among them, the need to demand attention through some heinous act. Perceived political or employment grievances in which the targeted politician becomes the focus of the assassin’s hatred and lethal weapon. At least one attempt was apparently inspired by a Hollywood movie. Arizona has been a politically conservative state for generations. But anyone studying the writings and videos of the accused, Jared Lee Loughner, is hard-pressed to find any coherence, let alone a political one either way.

Friends on Twitter said Loughner was ‘left-wing’ and ‘a pothead.’ Loughner claimed to admire both the ‘Communist Manifesto’ and ‘Mein Kampf.’ Before his expulsion from college, classmates said, he was given to unprovoked outbursts in class.

His writing of conscious dreaming is gibberish. His lonely video of a U.S. flag-burning in the desert is amateurish, showing a young male in a hoodie, garbage bag and mask shuffling about like a senior citizen. The Army rejected him. Someone who could likely use some treatment, but one problem with these awful incidents is that, in hindsight, most involve mental cases. However, obviously not all mental cases take such deadly action.

The sheriff has declared that his friend Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was the target, although her name does not appear in the rantings so far uncovered. A former Republican, Giffords was considered a Blue Dog Democrat, one who voted in favor of President Barack Obama’s healthcare legislation yet against Nancy Pelosi as her party’s leader for the 112th Congress.

The shooter attacked Giffords first. But then why fire nearly 20 more times? Unless the goal was to make a murderous media splash using Gifford and numerous other deaths as the guaranteed ignition point to finally be noticed, even if notoriously. Loughner’s friends also call him a loner, five letters that come up consistently in American history.


Jan. 30, 1835: Richard Lawrence aims two flintlock pistols at President Andrew Jackson. They misfire. A former general, Jackson proceeds to beat the would-be assassin senseless with the presidential cane. Lawrence was confined to a mental institution for the rest of his life.

April 14, 1865: Abraham Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth. Sic semper tyrannis. (See Civil War.)

July 2, 1881: Having written a speech supporting the successful election of James Garfield, Charles Guiteau felt he deserved a job in the new administration, although said speech was never actually given.

His job application was repeatedly rebuffed, so Guiteau heard the call to execute the ungrateful chief executive. Garfield succumbed to infections 11 weeks after the shooting. Guiteau succumbed to hanging the next summer.

Sept. 6, 1901: President William McKinley was attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., when Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist who had been tracking the president’s movements, caught up with him. He shot him twice.

McKinley died eight days later of surgical complications. Czolgosz, who refused to cooperate with his attorney, was convicted and, justice being somewhat swifter in the early 1900s, was electrocuted the next month.

Oct. 13, 1912: Former President Theodore Roosevelt was again seeking the White House when his famed verbosity saved a life -- his. In Milwaukee, a saloon keeper named John Schrank pumped a .38-caliber bullet into the politician’s body. However, TR’s folded 50-page speech and metal eyeglass case slowed the projectile. Roosevelt insisted on finishing his address.

Then, recalling McKinley’s deadly surgical complications that brought TR into office, he opted to live with the bullet in his body the remaining years of his life, which ended in 1919. Schrank, who claimed that McKinley’s ghost had ordered the assassination, was institutionalized until his death in 1943.

Feb. 15, 1933: In Miami, Democrat President-elect Franklin Roosevelt was talking with Mayor Anton Cermak (left in earlier photo above), a Bohemian immigrant who was the political architect of the Chicago Democratic machine.

Also in the waterfront crowd that day was another immigrant, Giuseppe Zangara, who hated all kinds of politicians, especially prominent ones, and had reportedly tracked outgoing Republican President Herbert Hoover. Zangara got off several shots before being subdued by crowd members. The bullets hit Cermak and four others. Cermak died in a hospital bed in March; Zangara the same month but in an electric chair.

Roosevelt was the presumed target, although some noted that the death of a prominent political foe like Cermak did not exactly hurt the business of Chicago mobster Al Capone.

Nov. 1, 1950: An attempted assassination of President Harry Truman by two Puerto Rican independence advocates fails but takes the lives of two White House guards.

March 1, 1954: Four more Puerto Rican independence activists open up from the House gallery during debate on an immigration bill. Five representatives are wounded. The shooters receive 70-year sentences but are released in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter in apparent exchange for Cuba’s Fidel Castro freeing some captured CIA agents.

Nov. 22, 1963: President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas. The accused, Lee Harvey Oswald, is himself assassinated by Jack Ruby, also now dead.

June 5, 1968: Aggrieved over Robert Kennedy’s support for Israel, Palestinian immigrant Sirhan Sirhan fatally shoots the campaigning New York senator in a kitchen pantry of Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel.

May 15, 1972: Arthur Bremer grew up in a dysfunctional Milwaukee household where he pretended to live in a TV family with no verbal or physical abuse. He had no friends, changed jobs frequently. After a 1971 arrest for carrying a concealed weapon, he is declared mentally ill but sane and undergoes some weeks of therapy.

Early in 1972 he tells his diary he will shoot either Richard Nixon or George Wallace ‘to do something bold and dramatic’ to make ‘a statement of my manhood for the world to see.’

After studying Sirhan’s story and tracking Wallace for weeks, Bremer accomplishes that in Maryland at a political appearance in a shopping center.

Wallace was paralyzed from the waist down. A jury rejected Bremer’s insanity defense. He got 63 years, reduced to 53, was released after 35 and is on parole until 2025.

1975: At least two attempts on President Gerald Ford’s life, both by women and both in Northern California: Lynette Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore. Fromme, a member of the notorious Manson family, and Moore, who later said she’d been ‘blinded’ by radical political beliefs, both received life sentences. However, both have been released, Moore in 2007 and Fromme in 2009.

March 30, 1980: John Hinckley had become obsessed first with the violent movie ‘Taxi Driver,’ the story of a would-be presidential assassin based on the story of Bremer’s attempted Wallace killing. Hinckley also fixated on an actress in that film, Jodie Foster.

Rejected and despite treatment for mental illness, Hinckley devised several bizarre plots to gain her attention, including an airplane hijacking and committing suicide in front of her, before settling on a presidential murder.

He trailed Democrat Carter and then shot newly installed Republican President Ronald Reagan, among others, at the side door to the Washington Hilton. Hinckley remains institutionalized. And you may have noticed since that gloomy D.C. day, there are no more videos of presidents entering or leaving regular hotel doors. That’s because the most powerful elected official in the world now comes and goes through the freight elevators and secure basements with the reeking garbage dumpsters.

July 24, 1998: Two days after shotgunning a dozen cats at his grandmother’s house in Illinois, Russell Weston Jr. charged into the U.S. Capitol firing, presumably hunting members of Congress that he hated. Weston, who had previously been treated as a paranoid schizophrenic, exchanged fire with Capitol police, killing two officers before being wounded. He remains, untried, in a mental institution.

In case you champion or fear more gun control attempts as a result of the Tucson shootings, Gary Langer, the numbers maestro for ABC News, points out that more limits have not been the typical result of previous notorious shootings.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photos, from top: A 9mm Glock similar to the one used in the Tucson shootings; James Palka / Associated Press. A man believed to be Jared Lee Loughner in a MySpace photo; Reuters. President Teddy Roosevelt speaking, 1905; PBS. Then-Gov. Franklin Roosevelt at the 1932 World Series with Anton Cermak, left, and son James; Associated Press. Bremer’s hand with the pistol fires at Wallace, 1972, Maryland; Associated Press. An image of Robert De Niro from the movie ‘Taxi Driver’ (based on the Bremer story that inspired John Hinckley to shoot President Reagan). Reagan waves a second before Hinckley fires from the crowd in the background;