In olden days, a lot of political assassins, would-be and otherwise, were left wing. There’s a pretty un-mysterious reason for this: Left-wing political movements advocated violence! Well, many of them. They wanted to overthrow capitalism, by any means necessary.
So you had people like the infamous Leon Czolgosz, the former steelworker and anarchist who killed President William McKinley in 1901 while the latter was shaking hands at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Much later, another anarchist, Guiseppe Zangara, tried (probably; historians disagree) to kill president-elect Franklin Roosevelt in Miami in early 1933. He missed FDR, but he got Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who was at Roosevelt’s side and who died from his wounds. To the anarchist of 1933, the liberal Democrat Roosevelt, who could put a benign face on capitalism, was far worse than any scowling Republican.
They weren’t all left wing, of course. I mean, John Wilkes Booth. On April 11, 1865, Booth was in a crowd outside the White House listening to Lincoln give a speech in which he vowed that he would press for the right to vote for freed slaves. That, by God, Booth thought to himself, is the last speech that man will ever give. Three nights later, the president did his assassin the favor of going to the theater.
And of course let’s not ignore Ku Klux Klan violence. Researching this column I learned of a Congressman from Arkansas named James M. Hinds, who, in 1868, was shot down by a Klansman, who also happened to be secretary of the Monroe County Democratic Party, as part of a Klan intimidation campaign against Republican carpetbaggers.
And finally, there’s a category that’s neither left nor right and may be the most prevalent of all—the disgruntled bureaucrat or patronage drone. The most famous of these is probably Charles Guiteau, the killer of president James Garfield in 1881. Guiteau, in addition to being disgruntled (it’s always that word!) over a denied patronage appointment, was apparently crazy. There is a remarkable little book from the 1970s called The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau: Psychiatry and Law in the Gilded Age, by Charles Rosenberg, which delves into the fascinating debate that took place at the time about Guiteau’s mental state and his degree of culpability.
We may never know about James Hodgkinson’s mental state in the days and hours leading up to his horrifying attack Wednesday morning, since he’s dead. We know that he was left wing, a comparative rarity for a political assassin in the United States these days. That he had a concealed carry permit in the state of Illinois, and he liked to go out in his backyard in Belleville and shoot at the trees (leaving his neighbors something less than, um, gruntled).
You don’t find so many left-wing gun enthusiasts in this country. You did, 40 and 50 years ago. Back then, it was certain far-left movements, notably the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers, who thought the man was coming for them (not without some basis in fact, at least in the Panthers’ case) and who armed themselves accordingly.
But in the last 30 years, that kind of paranoia has shifted from the far left to the far right. Besides which, guns are today so culturally identified with the right, because of the fine work of Wayne LaPierre and his confederates at the National Satan Association, that most left-wing people don’t want anything to do with them.
But it’s my hunch that Hodgkinson was not part of any broader movement. If he went to any Occupy Wall Street rallies, I’d be surprised. He seems to have been a lone, and lonely, man, stewing in his juices, fuming about the world, developing a worldview, when Bernie Sanders came along and seemed to be speaking directly and only to him.
I saw that many right-wingers on Twitter and Facebook were really enjoying this yesterday. It was all right, you see, because no one died (though Congressman Steve Scalise's remained in critical condition Wednesday night). Now, the next eight times some right-wing nut goes on a shooting spree, they’ll have “but James Hodgkinson!” at the ready.
So be it. I abhor this shooting, and I abhor all such shootings. And while I would agree that it was a damn good thing that the police were there, I would not agree that that just proves that more people should have guns so that more Hodgkinsons can be stopped before inflicting the maximum damage. Teachers and regular citizens aren’t cops. They don’t do repeated drills on taking down perps, and they shouldn’t.
Instead, I think it’s insane that James Hodgkinson had a military-style assault rifle in the first place (described as “like a Colt M4,” which you can see here). That’s still the real fight. Anything else is smoke.