Poltical Assassination and Motivation

Randall Stephens

On November 23, 1963 the New York Times announced "Leftist Accused: Figure in a Pro-Castro Group is Charged--Policeman Slain." Will Fritz, head of the Homicide Bureau, Dallas Police Department, linked Lee Harvey Oswald to the left-wing "Fair Play for Cuba Committee." Such connections proved more complicated than originally imagined. Oswald lied and was, by any account, a shiftless loser. Journalists and commentators grasped for a motive in the chaotic hours and days after President Kennedy's assassination. Texas, and Dallas in particular, was a hotbed of anti-Kennedy feeling and theories of a right-wing plot circulated widely. (Replace Texas then with Arizona now and some striking similarities in public discussion are apparent. Tea Partiers and John Birchers . . . anti-immigration and anti-communism . . .)

There was, in fact, enough hard-right political terrorism in the South to make such views seem credible enough. The Klan harassed and threatened civil rights workers and dynamited churches and schools. Pundits called Birmingham "Bombingham." In rare cases, gunmen assassinated black leaders and activists. The murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968 created a political firestorm and produced innumerable theories as Kennedy's murder had less than five years before. After King's death in Memphis riots erupted across the country's cities and conspiracy theories of Klan involvement and a government assassin gripped the imagination of Americans roiled by the events of a turbulent year. Writing in Life magazine in June 1968 Paul O'Neil observed, "No real criminal organization conspired with [James Earl] Ray," King's alleged killer. Ray was, in O'Neil's words, like Robert Kennedy's assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, prone to bizarre fantasies and unreal self conceptions.

Medical professionals, journalists, and the general public have often questioned an assassin's sanity. And the current debate over the political motivations of Gabrielle Giffords' mentally unstable shooter parallel related events in history.

Was Leon Czolgosz, who shot and killed President McKinley nearly 110 years ago, insane? The American establishment, observes Eric Rauchway in Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003), could not "admit that a low criminal had accomplished so much, and so from the start they insisted he was insane, and his action an accident of a callous fate" (x).

What of America's most infamous assassin? "One is naturally tempted to ask whether John Wilkes Booth, son of the 'Mad Tragedian,' might have been found insane under existing laws," writes Michael W. Kauffman in American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (New York: Random House, 2005), 353. Wilkes's brother thought madness ran through the male portion of the family. But, in this case, notions of melancholy and madness were closely linked. And diagnosing someone from the the remove of nearly 150 years would certainly be difficult.

Historians often ask why people do the things they do. Is it trickier to answer that question about current figures than about those from ages past? Figuring out the motivations of men and women from long ago, like judging why an unstable young Arizona man went on a shooting spree, can be a tough game. David Hackett Fischer explored motivation in his controversial, argumentative Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper and Row, 1970):

Historians have often used motivational explanations in their work. Almost always, they have used them badly. Problems of motive in academic historiography tend to be hopelessly mired in a sort of simple-minded moralizing which is equally objectionable from an ethical and an empirical point of view. Lord Rosebery once remarked that what the English people really wished to know about Napoleon was whether he was a good man. The same purpose often prevails among professional scholars who are unable to distinguish motivational psychology from moral philosophy, and even unwilling to admit that there can be a distinction at all. Moreover, many scholars tend to find flat, monistic answers to complex motivational problems, which further falsifies their interpretations (187).

But that won't keep Americans from wondering, speculating, and trying to make some sense out of seemingly senseless acts of violence, past or present.