Even before the Patriot Act, dropping the merest intimation that you’d like to do harm to the president of the United States was always enough to draw the Sauron-like gaze of the Secret Service upon you, or at least earn you a little coffee-stained Post-it somewhere in your FBI file. And beyond that, admitting to assassination fantasies has always seemed creepy: Among sane people, the glamour quotient of John Hinckley Jr. has never been particularly high.
But recent widespread feelings of anxiety, frustration, and helplessness seem to have caused a curious blip on the cultural radar: Assassination has become the taboo du jour. Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins may be closing, but next month, I’m Gonna Kill the President!, a satirical play by the pseudonymous Hieronymous Bang, reopens at a top-secret downtown location. (We could tell you where it is—but then we’d have to kill you.) Jonathan Demme has remade The Manchurian Candidate with Liev Schreiber, Meryl Streep, and Denzel Washington, and Niels Mueller’s drama The Assassination of Richard Nixon, starring Sean Penn, is based on the true story of a salesman who attempts to murder the president. And although the novel won’t be released until August 24 (the eve of the Republican convention), Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint has already caused a stir: One character ruminates at great length on his desire to assassinate George W. Bush.
Assassination fantasies in art aren’t new: In Our Gang, Philip Roth set his crosshairs on Trick E. Dixon; after the unfortunate commander-in-chief is found stuffed inside a giant Baggie sealed with a twist-tie, elated citizens (including a Boy Scout troop) clamor to take credit for the act. Even so, this current spate of assassination art seems to be riding the wave of the national mood. Earnest, well-meaning parents are often shocked when their gentle child—whom they’ve kept sealed in a bubble of goodwill, far away from toy guns—grabs a stick and turns it into a play weapon. Aggressive fantasies are a way of taking control when you feel you have none—the sort of thing that might rise to the fore if you live in a country presided over by a man who sometimes seems less president than king.
But do such fantasies represent a coarsening of our political sensibilities, or simply a Tourettish impulse, a way of clearing the air so we can move on to more important matters, such as actually voting? In I’m Gonna Kill the President!, the audience is invited to prank-call the White House, shouting, “I’m gonna kill the president!”—an act that is clearly intended to be cathartic rather than inflammatory.
And while the press has been busy wiggle-waggling over the threatening tone of Checkpoint, fewer people have commented on the weapons that Baker’s character is considering: radio-controlled flying saws and a remote-controlled boulder made of depleted uranium. In terms of his threat to national security, Baker probably rates as high as Flash Gordon. He claims he wrote the book “because a lot of people felt a kind of powerless, seething fury when President Bush took the country to war” and says it’s “an argument against violence, not for it”—a notion he might not have to stress so much if more people knew about those flying saws.
The point is that a dalliance with the fantasy of assassination has nothing to do with, and isn’t likely to lead to, committing the act itself. In unruly times, people tend to have unruly thoughts that they can’t, or are afraid to, articulate. That’s why we have filmmakers and writers to do that job for us—and to take the heat for having done so.