Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin was freed from prison this week
In 1981, John W. Hinckley, Jr. tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan by firing at him with a .22 caliber revolver outside of the Hilton in Washington DC. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, a verdict that outraged the public and led to the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984. After his acquittal, he was committed to a psychiatric facility, where he spent the next several decades of his life. Earlier this month, he was granted full, unconditional release from supervision, which went into effect on Wednesday.
It would be wrong to describe John Hinckley Jr. as an ‘incel shooter’, though he probably was an incel; accounts of his life indicate that he’d never had a girlfriend by age 26. Born to an affluent family, he was a happy kid that inexplicably grew shy and withdrawn as a teenager. He left the family home in Colorado to attend Texas Tech, but dropped out after a year. He would return to school three more times, but it never held his interest. Hinckley envisioned something greater for himself, and in 1976, he set out to California, to pursue a career as a musician (today, he has a YouTube page for videos of his original songs, which he sings and plays on guitar).
It was in California that Hinckley saw Taxi Driver for the first of over a dozen times. The film consumed him — so much so that Hinckley described his attempt on the president’s life as “the greatest love offering in the history of the world” for the actress Jodie Foster, with whom he’d been infatuated since her turn as a teenage prostitute in Taxi Driver. Hinckley was also obsessed with the film’s title character, Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro.
Bickel is unquestionably a salient figure among incels of literature and film (alongside Holden Caulfield and Gregor Samsa). He moves artlessly through life, driven by opposing forces of desire and disgust. The mounting, crushing rejections of daily life fill Bickle with resentment and rage that he unleashes onto the pages of his journal — his manifesto. He shaves his head. He buys his guns. He pantomimes his vengeance into the mirror. Finally, he goes on a killing spree, conceived in his troubled mind as a heroic act of vigilante justice.
In some ways, Hinckley Jr. mirrored Bickle’s trajectory. In the years that followed his move to California, he briefly attempted different jobs in various cities, returning to his parents’ home often. He wrote to them frequently, describing an exciting career and a glamorous girlfriend in great detail. These fabrications were initially ploys for money, but Hinckley began to believe them, retreating further into fantasy. He was often ill and saw several psychiatrists during this time. In 1979, while living off-campus in Texas, Hinckley began hoarding guns, like Travis Bickle, and spending time at the firing range. He was fusing his fragile identity to that of the fictional character.
The following year, after reading that Jodie Foster would be attending Yale Drama School, Hinckley decided to move to Connecticut, to “rescue” her from the streets. Incredibly, he managed to get Foster’s phone number, and they had two brief conversations that led nowhere. At this point, Hinckley became convinced that the way to Foster’s heart would be the assassination of the United States President.
In many ways, Hinckley’s journey is almost identical to that of someone like Elliot Rodger or even Uvalde shooter Salvador Ramos, who was also seemingly trying to impress a teenage girl with his heinous attack. Twenty-five years ahead, he embodied the archetype of the modern “active shooter” — lonely, sexually frustrated and desperate for attention. He was also floridly psychotic.
John Hinckley Jr. was not an ‘active shooter.’ He did not indiscriminately fire at strangers with a cold mental tally of his kill count. But ultimately, like Ramos, he was a copycat. If Travis Bickle’s finale looked more like Columbine, wouldn’t Hinckley have followed his lead?
Fortunately, it didn’t. And today John Hinckley Jr. is free. Maybe he’ll finally release an album.