Commentary Magazine

John Hinckley-A Face in the Crowd

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the attempt on the life of President Reagan last March was the failure of anyone, in the days and minutes before it took place, to restrain his attacker. The security procedures for the President’s exit from the Hilton Hotel have naturally come under investigation. Yet security was not really the issue. For one thing, as it has been widely observed in the aftermath, no public figure’s safety can be infallibly insured in an open society. But more importantly, the truth is that in this case John Hinckley did not elude security so much as he successfully defied it.

In the weeks before he made his attempt, Hinckley repeatedly evidenced disturbed or suspicious behavior in public. In Lakewood, Colorado, some time after he had purchased his guns, a policeman noticed that he “kept staring at the police car and then looking away.” Hinckley was questioned but not searched by the policeman, who later said:

I never contacted a person so nervous who didn’t have something dirty [i.e., illegal drugs, a gun, or stolen property] on him. He stands out as the most nervous person I’ve ever contacted.

At the Nashville airport, Hinckley was arrested for attempting to carry his three guns and fifty bullets onto an airplane. In getting caught, it should be noted, he was displaying either a wish to be punished or a lack of contact with reality. For firearms can be detected in an airport only when they are in the carry-on luggage that is routinely checked by X-ray. Anyone seriously bent on transporting guns by plane has only to place them in the luggage that is checked and loaded separately—without being X-rayed. In addition to contriving to be caught, Hinckley behaved in such a way as to lead an airport security officer to conclude that “mentally he did not seem stable.”

Finally, outside the Hilton Hotel before Hinckley shot the President, someone in the crowd observed that “he looked fidgety—agitated—a little strange, and I said to myself ‘What if he takes a shot at the President?’” Someone else in the crowd recalled: “There was this police lieutenant who kept looking over my shoulder toward the guy.” As Hinckley waited for the President to emerge, he muttered aloud to himself and made a sneering comment about the press. (The reporter who overheard his remark must have realized that it indicated Hinckley did not belong in the press section where he was standing.)

In the final analysis, Hinckley’s impunity in all these instances was the product of a widespread change in how society views social deviance. The pendulum has swung so far from a rigid conception of propriety in public that for the crowd gathered outside the Hilton, bad manners would have consisted in objecting to behavior like Hinckley’s. The very terms of the past—“social nuisance,” “undesirable,” “antisocial”—have come to sound quaint. When, in the aftermath of the attempt, former President Gerald Ford referred to “loners, kooks, screwballs” in connection with Hinckley, it was Ford himself who gave the appearance of being in violation of a social norm.

By 1981 the social deviate, even if discovered to be armed, is no longer an unfamiliar or even entirely frightening figure. Each month at the Nashville airport the police routinely arrest four or five people for carrying weapons. Most are set free on bond even though it is known that half will never return to face the charges against them. Hinckley was sent on his way within a few hours, like the others, being obliged only to put up a fifty-dollar bond and pay court costs of twelve dollars and fifty cents.



The change of attitudes that benefited Hinckley can be traced at least in part to the 1960’s. It was then that the misfit, especially in the figure of the young man who cannot adjust to the demands of society, was put forward as a culture hero. Recently, at John Lennon’s death, it was claimed by his admirers that the Beatles had been instrumental in winning acceptance for the unattached, untrammeled new style of this figure, who offers a life-giving alternative to the repressiveness of bourgeois society and the violence that it supposedly spawns. Lennon’s eulogists pointed out that the new style, along with “Beatlemania,” had developed soon after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, and that both were in part responses to that event.

Insofar as Hinckley had a “lifestyle” it was that of the 1960’s wanderer. Hinckley drifted through the Southwest with his guitar and “few possessions other than blue jeans, casual shirts, a tape-music player, and a dozen or so tapes.” Alone in his motel and hotel rooms he surrounded himself with memorabilia from the 60’s: photographs of Lee Harvey Oswald, newspaper and magazine accounts of Oswald’s assassination of President Kennedy—and a newspaper clipping of song lyrics by John Lennon. Strumming his guitar while alone in one of these rooms on New Year’s Eve, Hinckley made a tape recording which suggested that the recent shooting of his “idol,” John Lennon, had shattered his equilibrium: “The dream is over as Lennon said ten years ago, but it’s really over now.”

Hinckley also identified with the disturbed drifter in the movie, Taxi Driver. “If there was more people like the character Robert De Niro played in the movie,” he is reported to have said, “there wouldn’t be any problem controlling crime.” These strange words suggest a link in Hinckley’s mind between the figure of the misfit and some ideal of social justice—a leftover part of the 1960’s dream that he quite correctly found in Taxi Driver.

In the movie, the De Niro character is obsessed with the “scum” of night-time New York, especially its pimps and prostitutes. He determines to rescue a teen-age prostitute, played by Jody Foster, from her pimp. But at the same time he has been frustrated in his love for a presidential campaign worker. He arms himself and, alone in his room, fantasizes about setting everything right by assassinating the candidate. He shaves his head so as to leave a Mohawk Indian strip of hair down the middle, throws on his army fatigue jacket, and sets off for the candidate’s next campaign stop. Here he loiters at the edge of the crowd until, just as he is about to draw his gun, he is chased away by a Secret Service agent whom he had accosted at a previous rally. It is not clear whether the agent has recognized him or has been alerted either by his bizarre appearance or by his reaching for a gun. As with Hinckley, though, it is certain that no one else in the crowd finds his appearance worthy of note.



A few years ago in The Fall of Public Man the sociologist Richard Sennett described a long-term shift in public behavior that goes some distance toward accounting for the contemporary assassination scene as pictured in Taxi Driver and repeated by Hinckley. In the 18th century, Sennett wrote, the life of the streets in the great cities of the West resembled outdoor theater. Members of all classes promenaded in public, displaying themselves to one another. The fashionable ones sported gorgeous costumes and vivid face paint, while the dress worn by the middle and lower classes advertised their occupations.

In the course of the 19th century most of this display was removed from the streets to the theater, while the kinds of emotions formerly expressed in public were transferred to the private arena of family life. In public, dress and behavior took on a sameness and sobriety, or at least an impersonality.

The results of the 19th-century shift to public restraint can still be observed in documentary film foot-age of crowds in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Here the thousands of people who fill the streets of cities are dressed virtually alike. In their dark shoes, overcoats, and hats they offer a vista of sobriety.

The 1960’s, one may say, brought about a certain return to the public expressiveness of an earlier age. Lunchtime crowds displayed a colorful array of clothing and behaviors that remains visible to this day. But the return of expressive behavior did not bring back the earlier form of identification of social type by dress; in their own way the members of the modern crowd remain as anonymous in the 1980’s as they were in the 1940’s.

More important, they have lost something crucial. By their dress and deportment the crowds of the 40’s indicated that they belonged to the middle class. Theirs was a universal desire to be seen as respectable members of society, and a universal willingness to appear, sometimes at considerable expense and discomfort, in a uniform that proclaimed that respectability. In the interim, the one social rule that everyone seems to have learned is above all to avoid the appearance of being middle class, or for that matter, respectable.



Acquiescing in the contempt of its critics, the middle class has come to accept the deviant as hero and learned to view mental disturbance as a sign of divine grace (at the same time regarding the policeman as villain and superintendence of the mentally disturbed as signifying a penchant for cruelty). In short, this is a class that, as evidenced by its self-denigrating views and self-effacing behavior in public, has suffered a precipitous decline in self-respect.

President Reagan nearly paid with his life for this loss. Outside the Hilton, when his assembled well-wishers and protectors were faced with John Hinckley’s display of threatening behavior, they proved incapable of response.

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