The French Islamist Assassin and Steven Sondheim’s ‘Assassins’ Musical

Musical theatre isn’t a word you often associate with serious politics. I don’t think the song and dance spectaculars of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had very much to say about the threat of political or religious extremism, or the dangers of inadequate fiscal and economic policies. The same with the great musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein, though the song, There Is Nothing Like A Dame was used as the main song for a feminist ‘Golden Gala’ broadcast on ITV in the late ’70s – early ’80s, and reviewed by Clive James.

Steven Sondheim’s musical, Assassins, is different, however, and very relevant to the psychology of the Islamist murderer who killed his boss and attempted to blow up the oxygen plant at which he worked in France on Friday. Glancing at the headlines for the MSN news on the ‘net the other day, I found the headline that personal and job problems were behind the man’s brutal attack on his boss and his attempt at mass murder.

This is very much of a piece of the psychology of the long line of men and women, who have tried, and sometimes succeeded, to kill the president of US, according to Sondheim’s musical. This traces the personal histories and motives of the killers from John Wilkes Booth, the murderer of Abraham Lincoln, onwards. They include Italian anarchists, truckers and a young woman, who wanted to kill Gerald Ford out of her love for Charles Manson. After Ford pardoned Nixon, my guess is that a lot of severely normal Americans would’ve liked to kill him. The vast majority wouldn’t have done it out of adoration for a racist thug and butcher like Manson.

The play consists in the various eponymous assassins telling their stories. All of them are, to some degree or other, failures, who have found themselves at the very bottom of society. They’ve lost their jobs, or their businesses have folded, and there have been other, personal problems. So some of them ended up like the archetypal crazy on the street corner, shouting their hate and personal bile to the winds and to surprised passers-by. One of the would-be assassins is shown in a Santa Claus costume, holding up a sign saying, ‘I Demand My Constitutional Rights’. The circumstances may be different in each case, but with nearly all of them it’s a moot point how far they are acting out of altruistic, purely political motives, and how far they have just made the president of the US the focus of their hate simply for their own, personal and professional failures.

Which is the precise point the play makes.

And that appears to be pretty much the case also with the French assassin on Friday. He was a failure, having difficulties at work and home, and so decided to kill his boss and then destroy the plant, taking with it himself, his co-workers, and no doubt many of the local townspeople. Radical Islam and its jihadi ideology provided the rationale, a pretext to excuse and justify his terrible actions. But in the end, they were far less noble than he attempted to fool himself.

This doesn’t alter how terrible they were. He still killed an innocent man, and attempted to take the lives of many more innocents. But despite his professed motives, he was like the Assassins of Sondheim’s musical, just another sad loser trying to find a political scapegoat for their own personal and professional failings.

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