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Friday, December 5, 2014

December 5, 2014: AmericanWinters: The Killing of John Lennon

[As we get closer to what some are predicting will be another rough winter, a series AmericanStudying significant winter events from our history. Leading up to a special weekend post on Pearl Harbor!]
On assassinations, celebrity, and how to AmericanStudy senselessness.
As any investigation into historical assassinations reveals, there’s a wide spectrum of motivations behind such political murders: some, like John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln, are motivated by genuine (if of course extreme) political and social perspectives and purposes; while others, like John Hinckley’s attempt on President Reagan, are driven by the most delusional fantasies and psychoses. Mark David Chapman’s December 1980 killing of John Lennon, which took place only a few months before Hinckley’s attempt on Reagan, certainly seems to fit the latter category: like Hinckley, Chapman was an obsessive fan of a celebrity; whereas Hinckley tried to impress that celebrity (the young movie star Jodie Foster) by killing the president, Chapman expressed his obsession more directly, killing the artist himself.
Moreover, I would argue that the concept of celebrity can help explain not only these particular killings, but also virtually all American assassinations, even the more ostensibly political. It’s not at all coincidental, that is, that John Wilkes Booth came from a family of actors and was a onetime prominent performer himself, nor that Booth chose a theater for his assassination attempt (and famously jumped onto the stage and into the audience’s awareness after the killing)—every such action seems driven at least as much by the ego and needs of the assassin as by any historical or political purposes, a trend that has only been amplified in our media-driven age (leading, for example, to the debates over whether the name and identity of mass shooters should be released in the media, a practice that might have the effect of feeding and perhaps even amplifying this need for attention). In any case, all the aforementioned assassins likely number among the most well-known historical figures, and have thus become celebrities of a particular, macabre sort.
Yet that paragraph and those such analyses notwithstanding, I think it’s important to take a step back and recognize that there’s a certain level of senselessness inherent in these kinds of killings, and doubly so in one as driven by delusion by Chapman’s shooting of Lennon. Obviously I’m always interested in finding contexts and meanings, of any and every event and moment; and contexts (for example) are indeed always present and can at the very least help us understand both the historical situation in which an event took place and the broader national narratives to which it might connect.  But there’s something—something important, again—to be said for an ability to recognize that sometimes history, like all aspects of life, defies explanation, seems devoid of analytical meaning. In his song “Nebraska,” a bleak work inspired by the mass murder spree of killers Charles Starkweather and Carol Ann Fugate, Bruce Springsteen has his speaker (the male killer) offer only this explanation for his crimes: “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” Sometimes, it’s as simple and as painful as that.
Special post this weekend,

PS. What do you think? Other winter events you’d highlight?

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