Thursday, July 24, 2003

In the wake of yesterday's fatal shooting of New York City Councilman James Davis in the Council chambers, there has been a great deal of speculation over how something like this could happen. Well, yes, there were obvious -- if understandable -- security lapses, but there's another aspect of the incident that has left a lot of people shaking their heads in wonder: why did Davis escort the man who would end up killing him past the metal detectors and into the council session? And why, when a colleague commented unfavorably on the killer's intensity, did Davis tell him, "Don't worry about him. He's a military guy. He'll relax after a while."

Why, in other words, did Councilman James Davis make it possible for Othniel Boaz Askew to kill him?

Since everyone else is speculating, let me throw in my four cents as a veteran of scores of political campaigns.

There are a lot of crazies out there. That's not news. You can find them in every occupation, or pursuing every hobby. But they are especially prevalent in politics. And by the way, when I write about 'crazies,' I don't mean otherwise rational people who hold extreme positions on the issues. I'm talking about the Tin Foil Hat Brigade.

Politics draws the crazies for two reasons. First, the crazies are drawn to "The Issues" like moths to a lightbulb. Those issues can be anything from sewer reconstruction to flouridated water to the Second Amendment; the crazies -- seldom given to appreciating the nuances of public policy -- are attracted to what they usually perceive as the clear rights and wrongs of public policy.

Second, politics can be a high-profile endeavor, and the crazies are attracted to the proximity to power. To feel that they know their state assemblyman or city councilman or town supervisor is a validation of their own sense of self-worth.

Now, sometimes a crazy will even run for office. Sometimes, a crazy will even win. But based on my observations over the years, you can sleep with a sense of security tonight, knowing that most of your elected officials are basically sound of mind.

Why, then, do elected officials let the crazies hang around? Why don't they cut them loose... get them out of their hair?

Simply put, politics is labor-intensive. There are petition signatures to obtain, campaigning to do, hands to shake, brochures to distribute, doorbells to ring... And no one performs that labor with the intensity of a zealous true believer. The crazies who are drawn to politics therefore become cheap labor for the more rational politicians, who put up with their... uh... eccentricities because they derive the benefit of manpower.

I'm only speculating here, remember, but it seems entirely possible to me that James Davis knew that Othniel Askew was a bit... askew (sorry), but saw him as a political foot soldier who would help him advance his career.

Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the crazies are still crazy.

There is no moral to the story. Except that you should always be very careful about who you wave past the metal detectors.