Hi! I hung out a bit with Ryan and Jamie last night. Jamie made some chicken fajita tacos, which were good, and we watched a good chunk of an episode of The American Experience that was about The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
The documentary was definitely well made and did a good job of chronicling the assassination of Lincoln, as well as the events leading up to and following the assassination, but I still had some weird feelings about watching the thing.
The reason I felt conflicted, in short, was due to the careful attention and the "humanizing"portrayal that John Wilkes Booth received. Now I know that John Wilkes Booth is a somewhat important figure in history, worthy of some study and scrutiny if, for no other reason, than because he was the man who assassinated one of our nation's most important leaders of all time (the historical record should try to document who this man was and what he was all about). On the other hand, the historians interviewed in the documentary seemed to go out of their way to try to make sure that people understand Booth as a "real" person- not some crazy, out of control murderer and assassin, but instead as a disaffected, angry Southerner who saw himself as righteously avenging the crimes and indignities which had been wrought against his homeland. The historians in the documentary go on to tell us that Booth may have been the man who shot Lincoln, but that Booth was far from alone in his rage and his murderous sentiments, and that he was merely acting upon impulses that he shared with many other Southerners.
Okay. Like I said, I understand the need to maintain a record of who Lincoln's assassin was and what he was up to in the time leading up to and following Lincoln's shooting. On the other hand, there's a part of me that is annoyed by the fact that historians are giving this murderer exactly what he wanted when they spend so much time studying the minutia of the man's life and struggling to understand his motives. Assassins, terrorists, and other politically motivated killers often commit their crimes with the intent that the world remember their acts and empathize with their cause. Booth, like most politically motivated killers, was desperate for the world to understand (and hopefully to eventually support) his crime. Even as he camped in the wilderness, fleeing from the manhunt that pursued him, Booth put pen to paper in order to make sure that his rationalizations would be heard and understood by future generations.
And historians have eagerly gobbled such writings up- trying to "humanize" the struggling actor and make his motivations the sorts of things that people can relate to, despite the passage of generations since Lincoln's death.
Here's the thing. I understand why historians engage in this sort of behavior. They want to truly understand every aspect of their subject of study, including being able to relate to the assassin as a "real" person. I can't help but feel, however, that if these same historians were truly seeing Booth as a real person, they'd see him as an arrogant, self-absorbed, a**hole of a man who killed a president who did, in fact, lead The Union to victory over The Confederacy, but who also was one of the staunchest advocates the South as reconstruction and reunification efforts were beginning to take place (there were many Northerners who wanted to take punitive measures against the South in order to punish them for secession, but Lincoln was strongly in favor of forgiveness and in favor of the expenditure of considerable federal dollars in order to reconstruct the battle-ravaged former Confederate states).
I guess I just see there being a bit of a moral conundrum in terms of carefully studying and preserving the historical record of a political murderer. Think about the possibility of political assassination today, and maybe the issue will seem more clear. If someone were to assassinate president Obama because they wanted to draw attention to some kind of political cause or advance some agenda (whether it be the white supremacy movement or the defense of pure capitalism or whatever), wouldn't people be annoyed when the media played right into the killer's plan by immediately focusing a bunch of media coverage on the terrorist's cause or organization? Giving the terrorists that sort of media coverage only exacerbates the problem. Potential terrorists watch the coverage of such an event and immediately realize that violence is a good way to grab the world's attention and get their message out.
Same thing with the historians (who are essentially investigative reporters who are trying to preserve important events in a permanent record). What better motivation for the politically motivated killer than to know that their actions (and hopefully their motivations) are going to resonate throughout history for all time? Lincoln spent his presidential life struggling to maintain the unity of our country, but his death is marked by the dishonorable actions of a man who wanted our nation split in two (and yes, Lincoln's assassination was a dishonorable act. I don't care if Booth thought he was avenging the South or killing a tyrant or whatever. sneaking up behind an unarmed, unaware man during the middle of a play and shooting him in the back of the head is a cowardly, despicable act).
Anyway, there is, of course, an argument to be made that understanding why someone would feel motivated to kill Lincoln might give us some insight into what Lincoln stood for and what he sought to accomplish (i.e., if you understoof why someone felt compelled to kill Lincoln, you might come to a greater understanding of the principles held by Lincoln that threatened his assassin).
In terms of humanizing Booth, however- I just don't have an interest in it. In my mind, humanizing the man means seeing him as the criminal and murderer that he was and holding him in the same contempt that I would today's murderers. I don't think either the passage of time nor the revered status of his victim makes me want to lend him a bullhorn so that he can try to rationalize and romanticize his actions.
I guess I just got turned off by some of the historians who appeared in the documentary who seemed a little too eager and excited to talk about what was clearly one of their favorite subjects- John Wilkes Booth. I'm sitting there realizing how much of their academic lives have been given to studying this guy, and I just wanna say, "But he's just a murderer! He's some mediocre actor who didn't even fight for the South, but who thought he would make a name for himself by hiding in some closet and then popping out to shoot an unarmed man in the back of the head!"
Oh well. It's history. What can you do? It just bothers me that other people might be motivated to do bad things, also with the intent of getting their names and their causes recorded in the history books. On the other hand, I really don't want the historical record devoid of all of the bad people who did bad things, obviously. I guess I just don't need historians trying to help me "relate" to someone like John Wilkes Booth.
Can you tell that I spent some time in ethics classes while getting my philosophy degree? Why do I find it interesting to think about this stuff?