General Politics

The Motives of Assassins

John Sides Jun 10 '09

bq. This study is the first operational exploration of the thinking and behavior of all 83 persons known to have attacked, or approached to attack, a prominent public official or public figure in the United States since 1949. In addition to data about each attack or near-attack and each subject’s demographic and background characteristics, information was gathered about each subject’s ideas and actions in the days and weeks before their attacks or near lethal approaches. Questions were examined about each subject’s movement from the idea of attack to actual attack, motives, selection of targets, planning, communication of threat and intent, symptoms of mental illness, and significant life experiences. In every case, the attack or near-attack was the end result of an understandable, and often discernible, process of thinking and action. Implications for protectors, investigators, and researchers are discussed.

This is from a 1999 paper by Robert Fein and Bryan Vossekuil in the Journal of Forensic Sciences (ungated version). The paper was commissioned by the Secret Service as part of the Exceptional Case Study Project.

Some key findings:

bq. Students of assassination in the U.S. have generally seen assassins and attackers of political leaders either as possessing “political” motives or as being “deranged.” This is a narrow and inaccurate view of assassination. Attackers and near-lethal approachers of public officials rarely had “political” motives. Only one subject who acted alone (Sirhan Sirhan) might be seen to have a primary political motive or have a primary interest in changing particular government policies. (And even in Sirhan’s case, there is considerable evidence to suggest that his primary interesting in assassinating Senator Robert F. Kennedy was to achieve notoriety.)

bq. …An attacker or would-be attacker with motives that clearly are not “political” is likely to be seen as “crazy.” It has often been assumed that mentally ill assailants or potential assailants either have motives that are so irrational that they cannot be understood or have no motives other than their illness. This perspective is also incorrect…

bq. …Motives for attacks and near-lethal approaches included:

bq. – to achieve notoriety/fame;

bq. – to avenge a perceived wrong;

bq. – to end personal pain; to be killed by law enforcement;

bq. – to bring national attention to a perceived problem;

bq. – to save the country or the world;

bq. – to achieve a special relationship with the target;

bq. – to make money;

bq. – to bring about political change.

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