Saturday, 24 January 2015


American Mojo

The recent release of Clint Eastwood’s film American Sniper got me thinking about the long-range marksmen and cold-blooded killers who pick off their targets at distance. The film’s release, close to Martin Luther King Day, also got me thinking of those other unique individuals who go for that special kill; the high profile political assassination.

A more interesting film than American Sniper would undoubtedly have been American Assassin, because there is something essentially soulless and boring about gunmen like Chris Kyle, the subject of Eastwood's film, who kill people they don’t know in countries they couldn’t even find on a map, simply because they are "obeying orders."

Far more interesting are self-starters like Lee Harvey Oswald, who–tinfoil hat conspiracy theories aside–had a whole complex inner world that drove him to channel the spirit of Pausanias of Orestis, a classical exemplar of the same burning cocktail of inner resentment and desire for undying fame who also took out the most famous man of his day, Philip of Macedon.

The assassination of Philip of Macedon.
But while the charismatic JFK was followed by the less impressive LBJ, putting the seal on Oswald’s fame (or notoriety), Pausanias was less fortunate. His heroic act merely opened the way for a more celebrated man than Philip to appear on the world stage, namely Philip's son Alexander, whose fame soon outshone that of his father. This means that, outside of fourth-century-BC Greece, only history nerds like me have ever heard of Pausanias.

But back to America: One of the things that distinguished that ascendant powerhouse in its most virile phase was its custom of occasionally assassinating its prominent politicians.

The most obvious examples spring to mind – the Presidents: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and JFK, but also including the Taxi Driver-inspired near miss of Ronald Reagan. Then there are also those important secondary figures culled by the gunman’s merciless bullet: Anton Cermak, Huey Long, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. Cermak is included because the then Mayor of Chicago apparently got in front of a bullet aimed at the freshly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Against such prominent examples of the great man being pulled down–or in the case of Reagan nearly pulled down–by underlings, self-appointed to the task, the other great powers have little to offer. It is therefore tempting to make a connection between American ascendancy and American assassination – although the connection should be one of parallel effects of a common cause, rather than ascendancy causing assassination or vice versa.

The Death of Marat.
France of course has its Charlotte Corday who famously stabbed the Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat in his bath; and Britain has the disgruntled merchant John Bellingham who shot Britain’s most obscure Prime Minister Spencer Percival in an attempt to expedite a claim for compensation, getting hanged for his troubles. But both these examples are centuries old.

It’s not that Europeans haven’t tried. Hitler was renowned for his ability to survive assassination attempts and the idea of knocking off Charles de Gaulle was in the air long enough to justify a novel and movie on the subject. But the rarity of high profile political assassination in Europe is testified to by the overreaction that occurs when one actually does happen, as it did in the Bosnian town of Sarajevo back in 1914.

America is clearly unique in being a reasonably stable, large, powerful country with a strong tradition of political assassination. Looking just at the most famous cases mentioned above, we can almost detect a steady rhythm with a particularly intense flurry during the height of the Cold War, which prepared the way for America’s rise to global hegemon status:
Abraham Lincoln (1865) shot by John Wilkes Booth
James Garfield (1881) shot by Charles J. Guiteau
William McKinley (1901) shot by Leon Czolgosz
Anton Cermak (1933) shot by Giuseppe Zangara
Huey Long (1935) shot by Carl Weiss
John F. Kennedy (1963) shot by Lee Harvey Oswald
Martin Luther King (1968) shot by James Earl Ray
Robert Kennedy (1968) shot by Sirhan Sirhan
Ronald Reagan (1981) shot by John Hinckley Jr.
The gaps between the assassinations are as follows:
16 years/ 20 years/ 32 years/ 2 years/ 28 years/ 5 years/ 2 months/ 13 years

Since the failed attempt on Reagan in 1981, there have been no significant incidents for a period of 34 years now, and no significant fatalities for 47 years, suggesting that the pattern may have ended.

Some will put this down to improved security, especially surrounding the President, but for the determined killer there will always be ways and means to get at his target. Someone like Chris Kyle, for example – a disaffected war veteran with the necessary skills – would be more than adept at maintaining this tradition, and I am sure there are plenty of disaffected war veterans nowadays. But strangely there seem to be no takers for Oswald's crown or even Hinckley's. America, it seems, has fallen out of the habit of high-profile political assassinations.

The question is: should we be pleased about this or not?

The possible answers are various and complex. If one is a revolutionary who believes that the present system is oppressive–as many do–and that change comes through the barrel of a gun or the blast of a bomb, then the answer is “No, we should not be pleased.” But to any well-informed person it is equally clear that nothing is less likely to destabilize a state than the occasional culling of a few prominent politicians. In fact, it may strengthen the system and be greeted with the same spirit with which officers in the Royal Navy once drank a toast to “A bloody war and a sickly season” because of the chances for quick promotion it creates.

The hydra grows another head.
A more salient case for deploring this downturn in one of America’s “great traditions” can be made if we see the solitary act of the lone assassin as a sign of a society’s greater virility.

This sounds like a dangerous inference because it entails connecting violence to progress, and veers towards the logic of stating that the more violent a society is the more virile it is, which is plainly absurd, as the most violent places on Earth are the most desolate and wretched.

But the violence of the assassin is a different kind of violence. There is almost always something noble in the act of the assassin. Sometimes it is a political idea–Southern honour, social justice, a hatred of abusive power–and often a sense of personal honour. Charles Guiteau, the slayer of President Garfield was angered that his meagre efforts on behalf of Garfield’s re-election in 1880 went unrewarded, and saw it as a personal affront, strengthened by the efforts of party apparatchiks to brush him off.

Czolgosz, pronounced "Chugos"
The type of man who commits the crime of assassination is usually emotionally brittle and intellectually limited, an unfitting vessel for the higher ideals and notions of honour with which he associates himself, but yet proof that such things exist.

While the world usually sees a pathetic loser or simply a “madman,” the killing is always done – at least from the viewpoint of the perpetrator – for the most noble, elevated, altruistic, and self-sacrificing reasons. Leon Czolgosz, the killer of President McKinley, had been set aflame, like the worst beta male, by the anarchist oratory of an ugly Jewish harridan, named Emma Goldman. To us the scenario is comic, but alas not to the white-knighting Czolgosz, who was in deadly earnest.

In short, the act of the assassin is both an expression and sublimation of violence. The great American assassins of the past typically have the Faustian spirit in a mind and body that doesn't quite match up. This is their tragedy, and a tragedy that is also particularly American, as no country has been so successful at building such an ubermenschean structure on such an untermenshean base –  the backs of the spurned and discarded populace of the emigrant nations.

This is borne out in the origins, mentalities, and unprepossessing physiognomies of the assassins captured in various images, both before and after their arrests. But such as they are, these are men who at least had enough physical and mental capacity to strive in their forlorn but fanatical ways for something they felt to be higher. They stand not as challengers to the great spirit of the ascendant empire, but ironically as its channellers – revealing the common idealism, discipline, self-sacrifice, and even mild insanity that coursed through the veins of the new colossus.

For perhaps a century after the assassination of Lincoln, America was a machine for creating such mismatched Faustian spirits, but now the tap seems to have run dry. It is not that America has suddenly improved its race – in fact quite the opposite. It is not even that there are no longer the same types as Oswald, Booth, and Zangara. Those types remain. You may occasionally see them shuffling down the street muttering to themselves or filling an unfulfilling job with an aura of wounded pride. One also suspects that the internet might have sucked a great many of them up into its nexus of diversion.

But I think it is more a case that the great, Faustian high tide of America, on which such types floated up to commit their acts of semi-ubermenchean bravado, has significantly ebbed. Quite simply, an empire like America that can no longer generate its share of James Earl Rays, Carl Weisses and John Hinckley Jrs. is ultimately doomed, no matter how many Chris Kyles it sends overseas to put bullets through the “ragheads.”

Connected articles:
Oswald Takes Aim
Gavrilo Princip: Automatic Schmuck

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