When I heard that a group of men had been arrested on suspicion of plotting to kill the Democratic presidential candidate in Denver, my first reaction was not shock, but rather a thudding sense of déjà vu - for the narrative of presidential assassination has become deeply embedded in American culture, the most grimly familiar story in American history.
The motives of presidential killers vary widely. Some provide a rationale. “I did it for my country,” Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian, said after killing Bobby Kennedy over his support for Israel. Others, such as John Hinckley, who attempted to kill Ronald Reagan in 1981, are deranged.
But most president-killers share certain characteristics: resentment, a desire to get even, a yen for fame, a determination to shape history or to reverse its tide.
Usually the assassin is young, and American - Oswald was 24 when he killed John F. Kennedy, Booth was 27. Often they summon up the base courage to kill under the influence of drugs or drink. The word “assassin” derives from “hashish”, the drug of choice for the Nizaris, the 11th-century Arab sect whose members acted as political contract killers. The men arrested in Denver allegedly had methamphetamines in their car, along with their high-powered rifles.
There is also, crucially, a copycat element to American assassinations. Sirhan was obsessed with the murder of President McKinley in 1901, and had been reading about the killing of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. Arthur Bremer read books about Sirhan, Oswald and Booth before shooting the presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972.
Hinckley had a biography of Oswald, but was also fixated by the film Taxi Driver, in which the deranged and alienated main character is inspired, in large part, by the diaries of Bremer. Assassins feed off one another.