Monday, September 19, 2005

The Apeshit Insane Demographic Wants You Dead

It is a mark a political culture’s stability when its assassins
and would-be assassins act out of purely absurd motives.
No one shot at Reagan to protest his Central American pol-
icies or to bring down world capitalism; he was shot at be-
cause some goofy unmedicated loser saw that as the only
possible way he’d ever get to score with a famous actress.
Arthur Bremer didn’t put eight bullets into George Wallace
to punish segregation’s highest-profile advocate, he did it
because he was weird and creepy and because George
Wallace was the only figure on the national scene low-rent
enough to go kissing babies without an army of professional
lunatic spotters in his entourage. And Robert Kennedy’s
death was awesome in its meaninglessness, gunned down
in a kitchen by a drooling freak straight out of central cast-
ing with a name that was the same thing repeated twice,
like some sort of trained elephant or a child’s word for a
rude bodily function. Bo-Bo the Slayer. PeePee the History
Changing Psychotic. In these events we show ourselves to
be far removed from most of the struggling, troublesome
world, where people still die and get killed for actual
causes and ideologies. Here the only cause with the strength
to kill off the powerful is celebrity worship.

Assassination has become a crime for those too weak
and timid to steal candy bars. There is no moral question
in it anymore. Had someone killed Hitler in 1943, they
would be a hero now and we’d drive down streets named
after them. Were someone to kill Osama bin Laden to-
morrow, the world would lose some crafty nut living in a
cave and gain a much more fearsome martyr. This speaks
not to the futility of violence, but to its ubiquity. Violence
and murder to end violence and murder has long been
recognized by civilized people as a quaint equation, but
America will always reserve the right to dump discredit-
ed notions on foreign soil. Hence our war. Hence our
tendency to crush unhelpful despots while always some-
how managing to make the situation worse. For a society
of the future, our statecraft is still caught up in a peculiar-
ly retro form of imperial sadism.

Within our borders we’ve moved beyond the fetishes we
inflict on others. Certainly, there’s always the danger of
someone from a distant land with a grenade and a griev-
ance menacing our elected officials at home or on holiday,
but these people aren’t my focus here. I’m interested in
our homegrown assassins, the Lee Harvey Oswalds, the
Lynette Frommes, and the Mark David Chapmans. Most
often, their politics aren’t politics at all but a fog, a sort of
far-gone paranoid simulacrum of the same subjects sane
people debate. If they have a "worldview", it’s generally
delusional and entirely idiosyncratic. If they have a goal,
it’s likely to be a very rarified form of self-aggrandizement.
The victim is someone and their killer is a nobody. In a
nobody mind prone to these fixations, the least strenuous
way to resolve this depressing formula is to attack the
somebodys of the world. Any one will do: left-wing or
right, noble or corrupt. Obscurity is the only injustice
these people wish to avenge. The only "movement" they
represent is the movement out of their dank and miserable
lives onto the pages of history. Notoriety can be a cause in
itself, it seems.

President Kennedy’s unfortunate end can now be seen
as the archetype of this dynamic. At first glance, one
might be tempted to understand his death as a part-
icularly horrible moment in the Cold War. His killer
could easily be mistaken for a Communist sharpshooter,
a player in a red conspiracy. Oswald had defected to
Russia, he had proclaimed his devotion to Marx and
Lenin, he loved Castro and hated America. None of
this, in the end, really mattered at all. A personality
such as his might have just as easily gravitated to the
fringes of the right or into some fundamentalist re-
ligion. He was, above all, an inadequate and unstable
man. There was so little to him he needed the whole
Soviet Union just to fill him up. He was a terrible
communist. He was too lazy to be a worker even in
the worker’s paradise; he wanted to be a czar. The
lefty trappings were failing him as his life led up to
its big moment in the school book depository–he
had left Minsk in defeat, floundered purposelessly
in New Orleans and Dallas, and his last-chance scheme
to sneak away to Cuba had ended badly. Communism
had failed him. It hadn’t taken him out of his unbearable
life, it refused to make him a hero. A psyche like his be-
comes dangerous when human institutions fail to succor
the grandiosity that emptiness encourages. He was facing
down a long, worthless life and so, when fate routed the
President’s motorcade right past his newest dead-end
job, he made his sad grasp at immortality and actually
caught it. Ideals had nothing to do with it. President
Kennedy died for nihilism only.

The murder of Martin Luther King Jr. was different in
many aspects, but the underlying nature of the crime
corresponded closely with the script laid out above. James
Earl Ray was a venomous racist. He loathed King for being
black and when he shot him he likely thought he was
striking a blow for white supremacy. This would seem,
then, to be more of a "classical" assassination–a calcul-
ated killing to shift a balance of power or redress a per-
ceived grievance. Ray’s racism was certainly deeper
than Oswald’s communism, but–ultimately–it was
the personality more than the politics that drove both
men to their awful acts. The only thing greater than
James Earl Ray’s envy was his utter inadequacy. This
was a man who could embarrass the Klan, a sleazy
drifter, a shabby piece of flotsam who couldn’t even
learn to shoplift right. King must have been a living
insult to his serpentine stupidity–while Ray was floun-
dering around in his idiot sociopath’s life, here was this
lowly black preacher winning Nobel prizes and changing
the world. He probably saw King as an usurper; he pro-
bably imagined that the admiration and anger that King
inspired were rightly his. He was a child jockeying for
attention. He didn’t care if it was hate or love, either
was better than being ignored. In 1968, just as today,
this country was overrun with violent bigots, but Ray
had at least two things most of them never had–the
opportunity to commit one of the most vile crimes in
history and a psyche that longed to be more vile than
any other. For this reason, the lesson of Martin Luther
King’s death is only partly about racism. Outside a
Memphis motel room, the greatest man in America
was at the mercy of the wretchedest. To me, then,
his killing is about how the cruel, the stupid, and the
heartless will try to seize back any history that threat-
ens to show them for what they are.

And so it went for the rest of the century. In Germany
they had the Baader-Meinhof gang. In Italy they had the
Red Brigades. Here we have a handful of fearsome crack-
pots willing to upset the whole system just pretty much
solely for the thrill of seeing themselves on television.
This might not seem like much of a menace, but this demo-
graphic has been building an impressive body count: a
couple Kennedys, a King, a Beatle, not to mention all the
unsung ones who get gunned down in their schools and
workplaces when this sort can’t find a famous person to
kill. We live in a time that deifies greatness and power.
Greatness and power, we are told, are the rewards one
gets for the willingness to take big risks, pursue big goals,
and live outside the rules that hold down everyone else.
If this is a story we want to tell ourselves, we shouldn’t be
surprised when the mad and hateful lay siege to that gold-
en ladder in the only way they know how. Their shadow
America could just as well be the real one, couldn’t it?
After all, what is America other than a snarl of unrecon-
ciled, competing fantasies? In a nation of aspirants, ass-
assination happens in concert with, not as a protest
against, the overriding ethos. It is, in a strange way, a
testament to the strength of our society: everyone
from Presidents to their lonely, depraved murderers
endorse the same ideas. The killed and the killers be-
come inseparable, they pass into memory as negative
images of one another: the inspiration and its defeat,
the promise of change and the futility of fear, the dream
and the bitter reality. They are not miles apart in this
country. They are not even opposites. They stand face
to face, across a razor-thin divide, each one waiting for
the other to blink. We are a people who have found a
way to bind together the highest hopes and utter hope-
lessness. E pluribus unum in excelsis...