Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why Most Political Assassinations Happen

I'm coming around to the idea of President as Comforter-in-Chief in times of terrible violence. But that doesn't explain why these man-made tragedies happen. There has been a lot of speculation on the reasons for the recent shooting in Tucson. Whether it's guns and mental health or the problems with media and politicians, none ring true or have much factual support. That is until a recent NPR story pointed to a study done in 1999 by the Secret Service. Here's how they got their information:
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.
Seems direct enough. Here's what they concluded:
"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.

"They experienced failure after failure after failure, and decided that rather than being a 'nobody,' they wanted to be a 'somebody,' " Fein says.
And here's the craziest part, they aren't 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."

And most of the assassins and would-be assassins weren't totally disorganized by mental illness, either.

"They were quite organized," Fein says. "Because one has to be organized — at least to some extent — to attack a public official."
So why not just kill any celebrity?
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.
I'm not sure if this is more or less comforting than what I previously thought.


  1. I think I feel less comforted by this study. I don't know. Seems scary that some people just want to kill. Yikes. But interesting. Thanks, Harrison!

  2. I think I'm with you. How do you stop people from doing something that from their perspective makes perfect sense?


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