Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Everybody's Got the Right...

Assassins performance, 2004 Tony Awards

Everybody's got the right to be happy.
Don't stay mad,
Life's not as bad
As it seems.

If you keep your goal in sight,
You can climb to any height.
Everybody's got the right
To their dreams...

Everybody's got the right to be diff'rent.
Even though
At times they go
To extremes.

Anybody can prevail!
Everybody's free to fail.
No one can be put in jail
For their dreams...

Assassins probably tops the list of Broadway musicals that I really want to see right now. It's not actually for the performance, though -- it's more for the premise behind it. Assassins, you see, is an introspective piece that takes a closer look at the nine individuals who saw fit to attempt to kill an American president.

The fact that anybody would want to kill a president is unsurprising, especially given the controversial issues of contemporary times. It's probably not much of a secret that Osama bin Laden wants to see George W. Bush dead, or that Pat Robertson would wish a similar fate upon Hugo Chavez. I would imagine that being president, much less being a controversial one, is much like drawing a crosshairs target on one's own forehead: You inevitably become a target.

What Assassins points out, however, is that the nine individuals in question don't quite fit an expected profile of politically-motivated killers. In fact, their grievances seemed to be far more personal in nature; I'll even argue that self-delusion played an important role in shaping them:

John Wilkes Booth -- Assassinated Abraham Lincoln, presumably over the outcome of the American Civil War. Booth was a Confederate sympathizer who had previously attempted to kidnap Lincoln a month before.

Charles Guiteau -- Assassinated James A. Garfield. An unsuccessful lawyer-theologian, Guiteau was convinced that his work was a key factor in allowing Garfield to win the presidency. When his request to be named to an ambassadorial post was rejected, Guiteau sought to kill the "ungrateful" president.

Leon Czolgosz -- Assassinated William McKinley. A socialist fanatic who was never accepted in any group, Czolgosz convinced himself that the government was the source of the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy. Czolgosz therefore killed McKinley to initiate the change he desired.

Giuseppe Zangara -- Attempted to assassinate Franklin D. Roosevelt, presumably over "class envy" -- Zangara was jealous of people who were wealthier than him. The bullet instead hit Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, who died weeks later from complications.

Lee Harvey Oswald -- Assassinated John F. Kennedy, although a sizeable conspiracy theory has grown regarding the plot. No clear motive seems to have been put forward for Oswald, although the killing may have been masterminded by other parties.

Samuel Byck -- Attempted to assassinate Richard Nixon by hijacking a plane with the intent of crashing it into the White House. Byck initiated his plot because he had been turned down for a small business loan, and blamed Nixon for his failure.

Lynette Fromme -- Attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford. Fromme, an associate of Charles Manson, purportedly wished to meet with Ford over environmental issues. It is unclear as to whether or not her motives had anything to do with her background or alliances.

Sara Jane Moore -- Attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford in order to prove herself to a radical organization she had recently joined.

John Hinckley -- Attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan, apparently in a desperate attempt to get actress Jodie Foster to notice him. Hinckley had been in the process of stalking Foster for five years when he decided to make the attempt.

I find these developments oddly fascinating, in a way. There are plenty of people who oppose presidents from a political context, and murder is a constant on the list of crimes. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo seems to be reviled by a significant portion of the local populace, and Filipinos are no stranger to any news of political killings. So how is it that the United States sees an attempt on the life of its commander-in-chief about once very twenty-five years, yet the Philippines sees practically none at all?

Maybe there is something about the American context that has produced these nine individuals. Maybe Assassins has a valid point to make when it trots these personalities out for our scrutiny. While this does mean that the musical cannot work in a Filipino context, this is why I believe that it works as a method of introspection: When a piece causes you to question your very culture, it's probably effective. Sadly, I'll have to figure out how to sneak my way into New York City before I can have a first-hand look.

What's creepiest about the work, I suppose, is the fact that these people all believe that they're doing the right thing. It's implied that each of them are following a dream that is greater than their very selves. Motivation is a strange animal, I suppose -- it spurs people to things that they would otherwise not be able to accomplish, but it has little or no consideration for morality in the long-term. Morality, after all, is only truly determined once we can look back on what happened.

I'm assuming that most other people out there haven't seen Assassins, either. That's all right, I think. It's already possible to draw quite a bit of insight on it from where we stand.

"Get to hell out of here, you sonofabitch... I go sit down all by myself... Viva Italia! Goodbye to all poor peoples everywhere! Lousy capitalists! No picture! Capitalists! No one here to take my picture. All capitalists lousy bunch of crooks. Go ahead. Pusha da button!"
- Giuseppe Zangara, last words before execution

* All data on Assassins' nine individuals was sourced from Wikipedia. The summaries here barely scratch the surface; I would recommend following the respective links above in order to find out more about each one. The Assassins performance from the 2004 Tony Awards is sourced from YouTube, and is included to provide a glimpse of the title song's execution. Please don't sue me for any of this... otherwise I'm liable to go out and kill someone.


Dominique said...

Hi, Sean: great post, thanks for bringing this little gem up.

As I recall, what makes an assassination different from a mere killing is that it's a statement, political or otherwise. It's different when Osama bin Laden (or George W. Bush) gets killed by a missile (or a suicide bomber) than when either of them are shot in a robbery.

As to why there seem to be no modern Filipino assassins, I think you put your finger to it: a lack of conviction.

banzai cat said...

Gotta agree with dom, damn interesting post. Though I have to wonder, don't assassins who kill future presidential candidates count, like the guy who killed Bobby Kennedy?

As for the dearth of local assassins, it's probably because of that secret society that's supposedly protecting the Philippine president. However, I can't say anymore because I'd have to kill you then.

Seriously, the lack of assassins remind me of that other lack in our country: serial killers. Weird, yes?

Sean said...

Dominique: I've wanted to bring this up for some time now, actually. And if an assassination tends to be more of a representational statement... why has it never taken place in a Filipino context? I've always thought that we're good at such statements, and to say that we lack conviction sounds a little unlikely regardless...

Banzai Cat: I'm not so certain about the assassinations of "potential" figures, to be honest. I assumed in the past that potentials got killed to keep them from attaining certain posts, whereas presidents got killed for what acts they already performed. That presumes that assassinations are performed for purely political motives, however, and the nine people in the article have already implied otherwise. The issue certainly bears more scrutiny.

We lack serial killers as well, yes... or maybe they're not as well-documented around here as they are in other countries. I know that we have such things as "thrill killers"... but at what point does the line get crossed?