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Political assassinations in America

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The airwaves and Internet are buzzing with speculation on how harsh political rhetoric, whether from the tea party or Sarah Palin or someone else, helped cause the mass murder in Tucson on Saturday that also seriously wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.


Not only is this irresponsible, it's naive and displays a profound lack of historical context. U.S. history is riddled with political assassinations and attempts, and nearly all of them were perpetrated by nuts. Often, the gunman's case against his victim was irrational and disconnected from anything to do with a coherent political ideology.

The Digital History web site has a fascinating synopsis of American political assassinations, going back to the day in 1835 when an unemployed house painter tried to shoot President Andrew Jackson because he said Jackson had killed his father three years earlier. In fact, the gunman's dad had been dead for 12 years and had never set foot in the United States. In typical fashion, a jury found the man innocent by reason of insanity.

In U.S. history, nine presidents, one president-elect and three presidential candidates have been attacked, as have "eight governors, seven U.S. Senators, nine U.S. congressmen, eleven mayors, 17 state legislators, and eleven judges," the web site says.

It profiles presidential assassins through the years and finds: "In general, presidential assailants have tended to be outsiders, unusually sensitive to the political cults or sensations of the time. Few have had steady employment (only two of eleven worked regularly in the year leading up to the assassination attempt). Only one was married with children."

Many of these were clearly nuts. The guy who shot Theodore Roosevelt when he ran as a Bull Moose candidate said William McKinley's ghost told him to do it. Others had political agendas "but suffered from a paranoid or schizophrenic style of thinking and chose their victim almost at random.'

Read this Mother Jones interview with a friend of Jared Lee Loughner, the man charged in the Tucson shooting and who is pictured above. He apparently was angry with Giffords because, at a public event, he had asked her, "What is government if words have no meaning?" She apparently brushed the question aside; imagine that.

We will learn much more in coming days and weeks, but it sounds as if Loughner fits the historic profile. As to the larger question, which is why the United States has had more such violent attacks on politicians than any other country with more than 50 million people – I have no clue.