On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan. On Oct. 19, 2021, he made an account on Twitter.
While Reagan was not hit directly by Hinckley, he was wounded when a bullet ricocheted off the presidential limousine. Also struck were police officer Thomas Delahanty, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, and Press Secretary James Brady, who was left paralyzed until his death in 2014, which was ruled a homicide. The motivation behind the shooting was Hinckley’s obsession with then-eighteen-year-old actress Jodie Foster, whom he stalked after viewing her performance in “Taxi Driver” (1976). Hinckley had zero connection to Foster, but was under the delusion that the act would impress her enough to begin a romance with him.
Hinckley was found not guilty on all counts by reason of insanity and sentenced to institutionalized psychiatric treatment. He was fully released three weeks ago. I did not learn of Hinckley’s independence through a breaking news segment on NBC10, nor a cheekily written op-ed from the Philadelphia Inquirer. I learned of it through John Hinckley’s personal Twitter account, @JohnHinckley20.
My first thought: ‘Maybe Reagan’s almost-assassin isn’t the most appropriate person to quote Dr. King.’
My second thought: ‘What do the people of Twitter have to say to Hinckley now that he’s entered the public forum?’
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While Hinckley has not tweeted about the shooting as of this writing — he is instead using the platform to kickstart his music career, which sounds like the premise of a Babylon Bee article — participants of the 21st-century town square certainly have. His tweets boast thousands of replies from users primarily split into two camps: anti-Reaganites who regard Hinckley as a gun for hire, and Reagan supporters who believe he should not be allowed to participate in society.
I grew up in a pro-Reagan household. My father’s first and only visit to Washington, DC was to view Reagan’s lying in state, which he recalled fondly to me throughout my childhood. Later, when I studied at NYU, I made friends who were disgusted by the Reagan administration, regarding his policies as disproportionately and purposefully destructive for minority groups. So, when it comes to Hinckley, on which side of Twitter do I fall?
Neither. I’ve created my own side: the “leave presidential assassins alone” side.
Let’s remember that Hinckley’s shooting was not motivated by politics, but by untreated mental illness — “The only reason I’m going ahead with this attempt now is because I just cannot wait any longer to impress you,” he wrote to Jodi Foster hours before. It would be naïve to say no one’s worst moments define them, as John Hinckley Jr. will always be “the guy who shot Reagan,” but our justice system has reached a similar conclusion in granting him independence.
The tweets penned to Hinckley by both his admirers and haters range from silly to disturbing, but ultimately, every one sends the same message: “Hey John, remember the worst mistake of your life you’ve been trying to move past for 40 years? Let’s make you think about it more constantly than you already do.” Those tweets could easily trigger him, and it’s not too far outside the realm of possibility that he could snap again.
Do I think John Hinckley should be on Twitter in the first place? Absolutely not. A wise course of action would be to relocate, change his name, and keep off social media. But we can’t control Hinckley’s actions. We can only control our own. His safety and reform is not just his individual responsibility — as American citizens participating in the justice system, it is also ours.
But we don’t think about that when we log on to Twitter. We think, “How can I use the issue of the day to draw attention to myself?”
Social media has pushed us to subscribe to a postmodern, “everything is meaningless” worldview as a self-preservation tactic. The sad truth is our quest to maintain our sanity has had the opposite effect.
Why is it so hard for us to leave John Hinckley alone? Because communicating with a presidential assassin via a device we constantly have on our person doesn’t feel real. The absurdity of social media and the 24-hour news cycle drains our empathy — especially for my generation of young people, who formed their first memories watching the Twin Towers fall on repeat and entered the workforce monitoring hour-by-hour Covid-19 deaths. We can’t pretend to be moved by every piece of breaking news, so we make it about ourselves by either saying something inflammatory or funny: case in point, our response to @JohnHinckley20.
Our lack of reality extends to today’s criminals, as well. I have loved ones who teach in the Buffalo area. Days after the shooting at Tops grocery store, mere miles from the scene of the tragedy, many of them confiscated phones from students as young as fifteen who were laughing at clips of the shooter’s point-of-view video that had been shared on Snapchat. I remember watching the video on Twitter myself, and agreeing with a friend who said, “It looks like a scene from a video game.”
That’s not to say social media is an inherent evil. It’s helped me promote my work, keep up with old friends, and even meet my significant other. But purposefully or not, it’s pushed us to subscribe to a postmodern, “everything is meaningless” worldview as a self-preservation tactic. The sad truth is our quest to maintain our sanity has had the opposite effect.
Twitter’s response to Hinckley may be an apt reflection of our emotional drainage, but it’s also an opportunity for us to rediscover where the line is. Let’s say what we will about Reagan in private, but, for the sake of our collective security, leave involved parties alone.
Leslie Sattler edits for Broad + Liberty. Previously, she proofread for October Hill Magazine and worked as Managing Editor at Our National Conversation, a startup specializing in nonpartisan news. She has a bachelor’s degree from New York University.