Bringing a Microphone to a Gun Fight

Personally, I think the people who have been blaming hate talk radio, Tea Party shouters, and politicians het up about Kenyan birth certificates and socialism for the string of violence and near-violence of which the Tucson shooting last weekend is just the most recent have it all backward. Those people didn’t make Jared Lee Loughner kill three senior citizens, a federal judge a young man, and a little girl. They didn’t pull the trigger on the Glock that sent bullets through the brain of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and into a dozen others. They’re just not as limited in their opportunities, patience, or skills as Loughner was.

A report by Alix Spiegel on NPR’s Morning Edition today delves into a 1999 study of assassins and would-be assassins conducted for the Secret Service by an agent and a psychologist. They studied people both well-known and obscure and came to the conclusion that:

…rather than being politically motivated, many of the assassins and would-be assassins simply felt invisible. In the year before their attacks, most struggled with acute reversals and disappointment in their lives, which, the paper argues, was the true motive. They didn’t want to see themselves as nonentities.

And one thing [professor Randy] Borum and [psychologist Robert] Fein say about choosing a political figure — as opposed to choosing a show-business celebrity — is that the would-be assassins are able to associate themselves with a broader political movement or goal. That allows them to see themselves as not such a bad person. In this way, Borum says, assassins are basically murderers in search of a cause.

“There’s nothing crazy about thinking that if I attacked the president or a major public official, I would get a lot of attention. I would get a lot of attention. My goal was notoriety,” Fein says. “That’s why I bought the weapon.”

In the case of politicians, talk radio hosts, and Fox News pundits, they have a weapon that’s not going to get them put in jail. The payoff for what they do—in notoriety, money, and freedom—is far greater than any mere physical assassin. Police aren’t likely to shoot them. They aren’t going to go to jail. If their particular brand of vitriol catches on they get invited on TV and radio, they get book deals, and they might even get their own show or elected to office.

Of course, it didn’t really take a study for someone to figure out that assassins just want to have fun. The Secret Service could just have hired Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, who’d figured it out while writing the musical Assassins a decade earlier and expressed it in the song “Another National Anthem”:

[SAM BYCK (attempted to hijack a plane to crash into the White House and kill Richard Nixon)]
I deserve a fucking prize!…

[LYNETTE “SQUEAKY” FROMME (attempted to shoot Gerald Ford)]
I did it so there’d be a trial, and Charlie [Manson] would get to be a witness, and he’d be on TV, and he’d save the world!…

[CHARLES GUITEAU (shot and killed James Garfield)]
Where’s my prize?

I did it to make people listen.

[LEON CZOLGOSZ (shot and killed William McKinley), FROMME]
They promised me a prize…

[JOHN HINCKLEY (shot Ronald Reagan)]
Because she [Jodie Foster] wouldn’t take my phone calls-

[ALL (Except Zangara)]
What about my prize?

[GIUSEPPE ZANGARA (attempted to shoot Franklin Roosevelt, killing Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak)]
Because nothing stopped the fire-!

[ALL (Except Byck)]
I want my prize!…

Nobody would listen!

It’s a pretty easy path for the right-wing pundit. The money flows like the hate. But there can only be so many of them on the air at once and not everyone has the gift of the golden tongue. Not everyone who wants the attention can manage to keep it together long enough to make it through their crisis point.

“They experienced failure after failure after failure, and decided that rather than being a ‘nobody,’ they wanted to be a ‘somebody,’ ” Fein says.

They chose political targets, then, because political targets were a sure way to transform this situation: They would be known.

Married, with two kids, Beck barely held things together; ratings at New Haven’s KC101 were sinking, and his salary and responsibilities were being slashed. “Every single minute of every single day was a struggle for me,” he says. His worst moment: blacking out at night, then breakfasting the next morning with his kids when “they said, ‘Dad, Dad, that was the best one ever, tell us that [nighttime] story again.’ I realized that not only could I not remember the story, I didn’t even remember tucking them in.” Beck took himself to Alcoholics Anonymous. But he credits Tania, his second wife, whom he met three or four years later, for pulling him out of the deep ditch. At her insistence they shopped around for a church and became Mormons.

In the late 1990s (Beck is fuzzy on dates), while filling in as a talk radio host at WABC in New York City, Beck got a lucky call from media agent George Hiltzik, who had been tipped off by the program director. Beck told him he had an offer to do talk radio in Tampa. Hiltzik was impressed with Beck’s passion–and his urge to make a lot of money.

—Lacey Rose, “Glenn Beck Inc”, Forbes (04.08.10)

Loughner got his prize. It just comes with a bit harsher center than the prizes Rush Limbaugh and Beck take home.