Trigger-Happy Mood Targets White House

Frustrations and permissiveness, not Clinton's unpopularity, seen behind attacks on president's home

WHY has the White House become the latest target of the disgruntled and disturbed?

In the last week alone, at least four people have been caught trying to breach security at the Executive Mansion. This followed the small-plane crash onto the White House lawn in September, two subsequent incidents of shots fired into the White House, and the United States Park Police's fatal shooting of a knife-wielding homeless man (this last one, apparently, the result of a dispute between the man and the police).

The surest analysis of this unprecedented string of bizarre events, say criminologists, is ``monkey see, monkey do.'' Neither the president's politics nor his low popularity rating seems to have a direct connection.

One perpetrator, gunman Francisco Duran, had written a note saying ``kill the prez'' - and he's since been charged with attempted assassination of the president - but it's not known why Mr. Duran apparently wanted to kill President Clinton.

In part, says American University historian Alan Lichtman, the spate of incidents is ``a reflection of what's happening in society, of the increasing violence and disorder.''

In general, there's a growing willingness to settle disagreements by pulling a trigger. Someone cut you off on the freeway? Teach him a lesson with the 9-mm stashed in your glove compartment. Children are shooting each other over jackets. In the political realm, the most extreme abortion opponents are killing abortion doctors in what they call ``justifiable homicide.'' Reported death threats against Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia have forced the incoming House Speaker to abandon his walks to work in favor of a tight security detail.

Throughout history, United States presidents have been threatened, attacked, and killed. The verbal attacks on President Franklin Roosevelt were just as virulent as those against Clinton, Professor Lichtman says. What's different now, he says, is ``the general disrespecting of the presidency we've seen under Clinton.''

A key senator - Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, soon to be chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee - thought it a joke to suggest that Clinton had better bring a bodyguard with him on a visit to a military base in the senator's state. Reporters have sighted the slogan ``Where's Lee Harvey Oswald When America Really Needs Him?'' at conversative political events - a reference to President Kennedy's assassin.

It is all these small details that contribute to a Zeitgeist, an atmosphere, that leads people to take out their frustrations directly on the White House, says social observer Michael Lerner. The attacks on the president's residence can't be viewed as serious assassination attempts, he says; rather, they are a protest.

``The level of anger at Clinton is not about the specifics of his politics, but about the feeling people have that they were manipulated into believing something would be changed in America,'' says Mr. Lerner, editor of the liberal Jewish magazine, Tikkun, and sometime interlocutor of both the president and first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

``People feel hurt and betrayed, and it takes rational and irrational forms in its expression,'' Lerner says.

Conservative activist Floyd Brown blames what he calls society's lax attitude toward crime and criminals over the past 30 years: ``I think we are now reaping the harvest of permissiveness we allowed to go on during the late '60s and the 1970s and '80s.''

Some of the White House attackers, including Duran, have criminal records - a sign that the criminal justice system has failed to keep dangerous people off the streets, Mr. Brown says. ``The pendulum is swinging back; it's just going to take time.''

``These attacks [on the White House] have nothing to do with Clinton critics,'' Brown says. ``As a Clinton critic, I pray for his safety every night. He's our best asset for '96.''

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