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Commentary: No compassion for old-time assassins

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 10, 2009 - Five days after the conclusion of the American Civil War, on April 14, 1865, Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln.

Sixteen years later, on July 2, 1881, Charles Guiteau shot President James Garfield. The assassin was distraught over his failure to land a government job.

On Sept. 6, 1901, an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz helped to launch the administration of Theodore Roosevelt by shooting his predecessor, William McKinley.

So there you have it: three presidents murdered in a period of 36 years -- and this from an era that we look back on as the "good old days." Handguns were used in all three assassinations, and each of the assassins paid for his crime with his life.

Booth was fatally wounded by one of the Union troops who had surrounded the barn in which he was hiding. When he refused to come out, his pursuers -- who apparently had not be schooled in sophisticated negotiation techniques -- set fire to the structure. He was shot through the neck attempting to flee the flames.

Guiteau claimed at his trial that he had not killed the president, arguing that since Mr. Garfield had survived for two months before succumbing to his wounds, he was actually the victim of medical malpractice. The trial court rejected that interpretation of events, reasoning that the victim would not have needed medical attention in the first place if Guiteau had not shot him. He was hanged.

Twenty days after shooting President McKinley, Czolgosz's trial concluded with a guilty verdict and a death sentence. After expressing deep remorse for his actions and apologizing profusely, he was executed by electrocution on Oct. 29 of the same year -- less than two months after the original crime.

One can only imagine the state of our current political discourse if we'd seen three presidents gunned down from 1973 to the present. It's a fair guess that liberals would advocate on behalf of gun control while conservatives would argue that the chief executive should be better armed. Both sides would agree that the country had become ungovernable and each would blame the other.

Though we can only speculate as to the civic climate such executive carnage would generate today, the respective assassins would have met different fates in this age of modern sensibilities.

Booth would still be in the barn, which would now be surrounded by SWAT teams. Satellite TV trucks would dot the countryside while choppers hovered overhead as cable news offered 24/7 coverage of the breaking story, including a breathless interview with the pizza deliveryman who'd brought the fugitive's lunch.

The assassin's former girlfriend would appear on Oprah, after which she'd hire an agent to negotiate the rights to her life story. Dick Cheney would contend that the assassin would have never acted had he been properly water-boarded, and Jesse Jackson would lead a televised prayer vigil in the farmhouse. Al Sharpton would blockade Interstate 70 because ... well, because somebody's got to do it.

If Guiteau's court-appointed attorney failed to win an insanity verdict, his client's execution would be stayed indefinitely to allow him to pursue a law suit against Garfield's physicians who did irreparable harm to his reputation and future prospects by failing to save the life of the man he'd just shot.

Czolgosz would be understood to have been victimized by economic inequality, ethnic discrimination and the trauma of growing up with a need-to-buy-a-vowel last name. Community activists would campaign to rename a middle school in south Chicago in his honor.

Lest you dismiss the foregoing as idle satire, consider the status of America's two surviving would-be presidential assassins, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and John Hinckley Jr.

Fromme pointed a semi-automatic pistol at President Gerald Ford. Though the weapon was armed with a fully loaded magazine, she'd failed to chamber a round, rendering it inoperable unless she did so.

Interestingly, her attorney argued at trial that, as a member of the Manson family, she was intimately familiar with firearms and thus had to have known that the gun could not be discharged without a round in its firing chamber. This made her the first person in history to claim membership in the Manson family as a defense against the charge of attempted murder.

She was subsequently sentenced to life in prison. Now that she's 60 years of age, a parole board has deemed her to be rehabilitated. At least she's no longer a threat to Mr. Ford, who passed on several years ago.

Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan and presidential aide James Brady in an attempt to win the affections of actress Jodie Foster. Though neither man died, both were seriously wounded.

The assailant came from a socially prominent family with ties to the Bushes. In fact, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush's son, Neil, was reportedly scheduled to have dinner with Hinckley's brother the night after the incident. This get-together was cancelled, presumably because it was deemed unseemly for the sitting vice president's son to be seen dining with the attempted assassin's brother while the president clung to life in the ICU.

At any rate, the trial court agreed with the defense assertion that Hinckley was, in layman's terms, nuttier than a pecan at the time of the shooting and he was remanded to a mental institution pending recovery.

Doctors have since determined that he has improved sufficiently to be gradually reintegrated into polite society. As near as I can determine, he's presently on some kind of extended, low-key family time-out.

After the McKinley assassination, Congress ordered the Secret Service to provide security to ensure the president's safety. Given the current state of the public psyche and the number of guns in domestic circulation, that mandate would seem to be a formula for permanent employment...

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.