In light of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, NPR looks at a secret serviceman’s landmark 1999 study on the psyches of political assassins in America. Rather than ideological extremism, a desperate hunger for importance and immortality was what motivated most would-be assassins, who typically were individuals with failed, messy lives. And if they thought they could achieve fame by knocking off a political leader…they weren’t crazy, they were correct:
It’s well known that in March 1981, John Hinckley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan. What is not well known is that several years later, the life of President Reagan and the life of his vice president, George H.W. Bush, were threatened again — in fact, not just once.
“In the space of 18 months, four situations came to the attention of the Secret Service,” says Robert Fein, who in the mid-1980s worked with the Secret Service as a psychologist. Two were convicted, and two were sent to psychiatric facilities, Fein says, though the government didn’t exactly advertise it.
So Fein and Secret Service agent Bryan Vossekuil undertook the most extensive study of assassins and would-be assassins ever done. In the Secret Service Exception Case Study Project, they identified 83 people who had completed assassinations or made assassination attempts since 1949 — some cases known to the public, some not — and collected every document they could find. Fein and Vossekuil also went to visit many of these people in jail. Most said they’d be very glad to talk, Fein recalls.
The researchers asked prisoners how they chose targets, how they prepared. They inquired about their motives, every intimate detail of their process. After they asked these questions, they combined the answers with other sources and analyzed the information. In 1999, they published their results in The Journal of Forensic Sciences.
The insights of this study are interesting to review in light of the Arizona shooting. Perhaps the most interesting finding is that according to Fein and Vossekuil, assassinations of political figures were almost never for political reasons.
“It was very, very rare for the primary motive to be political, though there were a number of attackers who appeared to clothe their motives with some political rhetoric,” Fein says.
What emerges from the study is that rather than being politically motivated, many of the assassins and would-be assassins simply felt invisible. In the year before their attacks, most struggled with acute reversals and disappointment in their lives, which, the paper argues, was the true motive. They didn’t want to see themselves as nonentities.
“If the objective is notoriety or fame, that’s the most efficient instrumental mechanism by which to achieve that. I don’t mean to be flip about that, but a public official is likely to bring them a substantial amount of recognition instantly, without having to achieve something,” says Randy Borum, a professor at the University of South Florida who worked on the study.
And one thing Borum and Fein say about choosing a political figure — as opposed to choosing a show-business celebrity — is that the would-be assassins are able to associate themselves with a broader political movement or goal. That allows them to see themselves as not such a bad person. In this way, Borum says, assassins are basically murderers in search of a cause.
Another assumption people make about assassins is that they’re insane — people completely divorced from reality. But this study — to a degree — rejects that idea as too simplistic. Yes, the authors write, many of the people were experiencing or had experienced serious mental health issues: 44 percent had a history of depression, 43 percent a history of delusional ideas, 21 percent heard voices. But, as Fein points out, the way these people sought to address what they saw as their main problems — anonymity and failure — wasn’t inherently crazy.
“There’s nothing crazy about thinking that if I attacked the president or a major public official, I would get a lot of attention. I would get a lot of attention. My goal was notoriety,” Fein says. “That’s why I bought the weapon.”
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