Source: Scientific American
Source type: journal
Document type: editorial
Document title: “The Attempt on the President”
Date of publication: 14 September 1901
Volume number: 85
Issue number: 11
|“The Attempt on the President.” Scientific American 14 Sept. 1901 v85n11: p. 162.|
|anarchism (dealing with).|
|James A. Garfield.|
The Attempt on the President
The country has been appalled as it has not been
since the attempt upon the life of President Garfield, in 1881, by the news
that a similar dastardly outrage has been committed upon the person of the President
of the United States. It is difficult to comprehend how it is possible for crime
of this character to be perpetrated, or even contemplated, in a country in which
the institutions are free and the independence of the individual is paramount.
The only explanation of such an act seems to be that there is disease prevalent
in the land; that such an act can only be conceived by a disordered brain. The
problem, therefore, which not only confronts the people of our own country,
but that of other nations, is how to protect the individual head of the government,
be he monarch or be he president, from the act of the unbalanced mind. It has
been a notorious fact for a long time that a neighboring city is the hotbed
of anarchism, and whether it is proved or not that the assassin is a member
of this particular group of men and women is immaterial, so long as the fact
remains that he is an avowed member of this despicable brotherhood. The professional
anarchists in this country have almost without exception been of foreign birth.
If the family history of the individuals forming this body of malcontents could
be traced, it is probable that they would prove to belong to a class of unfortunates
who have passed through generations of poverty, depravity, and perhaps oppression,
with the result that they have, perhaps, inherited a bent of mind which is distinctly
abnormal. It is possible, even probable, that such a bent would not be recognized
by the psychologist, the medical student, or the alienist as a distinct form
of mental disease. When the mind reaches the point of depravity at which it
is unable to distinguish the difference between right and wrong—nay, more, that
it mistakes wrong for right, even to the point of conceiving the murder of an
innocent and unoffending individual to be an act of heroism—what further proof
do we need of mental aberration?
It is against the spirit of our country and also of the times in general to curb or to punish the individual for holding opinions, even though these opinions may seem unhealthy, even dangerous. It has always been the policy of our institutions to allow freedom of speech in the broadest sense; that is to say, it has been our custom always to recognize freedom of speech in the rational being. If, however, a lunatic endeavors to incite his neighbors to murder or to arson, we cease to consider his act “freedom of speech,” and we promptly place him out of harm’s way within the walls of an asylum. Why not treat the anarchist in the same manner? He is equally dangerous to the individual and to the community. He cannot be restrained by fear of punishment, or even of death; he cannot be reached by the ordinary channels of reason; his mind is incapable of following the dictates of reason and arriving at a logical conclusion; his heart, in like manner, is hardened as against the ordinary human sympathies. By what channel, therefore, can this individual be reached? If this question cannot be answered, then why should he not promptly be treated as any other dangerous lunatic?
Such a course of treatment seems to appeal specially to our idea of common sense, for the anarchist is often consumed with vanity or filled with a love of notoriety, or with a desire to make his name immortal, or to pose before his neighbors as a martyr; in fact, there are many reasons which tickle his pride and make him willing to endure death in carrying out what he calls “his duty.” But if such an individual were regarded in the eyes of the law as an ordinary lunatic and treated as such, and if the entertaining and the professing of such views as are ordinarily put forward by this peculiar sect were sufficient to stamp him as a proper subject for such treatment, surely the romance would soon disappear, and perhaps we would have discovered the speediest method of curing this loathsome disease. There is no difficulty in reaching the individual after the crime has been committed, but the disease is too serious in its nature to admit of our expecting a cure through any post-mortem treatment. The disease must be grappled with in its infancy. It must be strangled before the germ has been allowed to spread and attack the body politic. It is difficult to see how, therefore, the question may be met unless the anarchist is looked upon in the eyes of the law as the victim of insanity, and is treated accordingly.