In 1999 the forensic psychologist Robert Fein and Bryan Vossekuil, then the head of the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, published a comprehensive study of the 83 known individuals who had plotted or carried out attacks on American public officials and figures. “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,’ ” they wrote in the study, which was published by the Journal of Forensic Sciences. “This is a narrow and inaccurate view of assassination.…There is no profile of an American assassin.”
Yet the Tucson attacker, Jared Lee Loughner, is pretty typical. Of the 83 attackers covered by the study, 71 were male, 63 were white, 41 had never married, 47 had no children, about half had some college education, and about half were unemployed at the time of their attacks—all characteristics shared by Loughner. “Almost all subjects had histories of grievances and resentments,” noted Fein and Vossekuil.
The researchers found that “fewer than a tenth of subjects who acted alone were involved with militant or radical organizations at the time of their attack.” Instead they sought notoriety, revenge for perceived wrongs, death at the hands of law enforcement, attention to a perceived problem, rescue of the country or the world, or a special relationship with the target. Less than a quarter of the attackers developed escape plans. More than a third wished or expected to die during their attacks.
More specifically political grievances do sometimes play a role in assaults on political figures. “More than a fourth had a history of interest in militant or radical organizations and beliefs,” the study found. Radical left-wing views motivated presidential attackers Lee Harvey Oswald and Sara Jane Moore, while right-wing ideology inspired members of the terrorist group The Order to kill liberal talk radio host Alan Berg in 1984. Although Loughner has a digital trail of fringe views, it isn’t established that any of them motivated the attack.
Diagnosed mental illness isn’t a good indicator of who might become an assassin either. Fein and Vossekuil found that “fewer than half of American assassins, attackers, and near-lethal approachers since 1949 who chose public officials or figures as their primary targets exhibited symptoms of mental illness at the time of their attacks or near-lethal approaches.” Not surprisingly, the more mentally disorganized an attacker, the less likely his attack was to succeed.
Forty-six of the attackers and would-be attackers had been evaluated by a mental health professional at some point in their lives, but only 16 had been treated for mental health problems in the year prior to their attacks. Thus “it is a mistake to automatically assume…that focus on the presence or absence of mental illness is critical to determining the risk of violence to a public official or figure that a given individual may pose.”
Loughner’s lawyer may attempt to argue mental illness as a defense. But of the political attackers in the Fein/Vossekuil study who went to trial, only John Hinckley, attempted assassin of President Ronald Reagan, was found to lack criminal responsibility by reason of mental illness.
Most interestingly, the researchers found that “no assassin or attacker communicated a direct threat about their target to the target or to a law enforcement agency before their attack or near-lethal approach” (emphasis theirs). Consequently, they conclude, “The idea that the persons who pose the greatest risks to public officials and public figures are those who make explicit threats is a myth.”
In a 2004 review article in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy and his colleagues reported that research on a selection of threatening letters to members of Congress found that “the presence of any threat in a letter was associated with a lower risk of approach.” In other words, big talk usually means little action.
Investigators say they found an envelope in a safe at Loughner’s house inscribed with the words “my assassination.” While Loughner had previous contact with his chief target, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), at a public meeting in 2007, he had not, as far as is known at press time, made any direct threats against the congresswoman.
Fein and Vossekuil report that there were only five attacks against members of Congress between 1949 and 1996. The attack on Giffords increases the number of incidents to six. In the modern era, only two members of Congress have been assassinated: Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.), when he was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, and Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.), during his 1978 visit to the Jonestown cult in Guyana.
The relatively few attacks on public officials—fewer than 80 in 60 years, with about a third of those aimed at the president—provide no real justification for erecting the massive security infrastructure in which government officials and buildings are increasingly closed off to citizens. I admire Giffords’ willingness to meet and talk with citizens where they live, and I hope for her speedy recovery.
Ronald Bailey (email@example.com) is reason's science correspondent.