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Nefarious Notoriety: a Study of the Thoughts Behind Assasination Attempts on Public Figures
January 14, 2011 1:32 PM   Subscribe

In 1999, psychologist Robert A. Fein and Executive Director of the US Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center, Bryan Vossekuil, published a study of 83 persons who had attempted or succeeded to assassinate a public figure (Google HTML view of pdf). Those 83 were all the people who were known to have attacked, or approached to attack, a prominent public official or public figure in the United States since 1949. The goal was to better understand the motives behind such actions, and included interviews with some of the subjects. NPR covered the report today, interviewing Fein and discussing the findings. The summary was that the attacks were not political in motive, but attempts at gaining fame. "They experienced failure after failure after failure, and decided that rather than being a 'nobody,' they wanted to be a 'somebody,' " Fein said.

The report was the result of a five year study called the Exceptional Case Study Project, which resulted in the creation of the agency created the National Threat Assessment Center in 1998. NTAC's current website has the original report and other material, publicly available as PDFs.
posted by filthy light thief (31 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Everybody's got the right to be happy,
Don't be mad, life's not as bad as it seems,
If you keep your goal in sight, you can climb to any height,
Everybody's got the right to their dreams.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:34 PM on January 14, 2011 [9 favorites]


(For those that don't recognize, that's from the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:34 PM on January 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Well, let's actually link to the song. Everybody's Got The Right (from the 2004 Tony Awards). [featuring MeFi favorite NPH]
posted by hippybear at 1:39 PM on January 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Oh my goodness, Assassins sounds odd and very intriguing. Thanks!
posted by filthy light thief at 1:39 PM on January 14, 2011


I was just coming into this thread to mention Assassins too, but great minds think alike...

Specifically, I was thinking of the ballad/duet Unworthy of Your Love, sung by John Hinckley Jr. (to Jodie Foster) and Squeaky Fromme (to Charles Manson).
posted by Asparagirl at 1:48 PM on January 14, 2011


"Odd and very intriguing" describes nearly every Sondheim musical. Along with "brilliant", "can't get it out of my head" and "goddamn that man is a national treasure".
posted by hippybear at 1:49 PM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Even Bounce/Road Show and Passion? Come on.

/Devil's Advocate
posted by Asparagirl at 1:54 PM on January 14, 2011


while them that defend what they cannot see
with a killer's pride, security
it blows the mind most bitterly
for them that think death's honesty
won't fall upon them naturally
life sometimes must get lonely...dylan
posted by kitchenrat at 1:59 PM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


The summary was that the attacks were not political in motive, but attempts at gaining fame.

Sure, but one of the other things the study notes is that:
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.
So yeah, this basically says assassins often rationalize their acts by identifying with an extreme political cause. I'm pretty sure that's just about the full extent of the blame some "liberals" like myself have been trying to suggest might be fairly laid at the feet of the Limbaughs, Becks and Palins of the world. They provide rationalizations, not motives. Motives are always personal. Rationalizations are inherently outward looking.

And the Tucson shooter did get suspended from Community College after ranting belligerently about his constitutional rights being violated. What kind of truly apolitical person is so fixated on questions of constitutionality they interpret getting a bad grade on an essay as a violation of their constitutional rights?
posted by saulgoodman at 2:05 PM on January 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


While we're putting together a soundtrack, Peter Gabriel said something like this back in the 80s.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:10 PM on January 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Friday must be Assassins day everywhere. This show just opened in Toronto and was featured on CBC's Q today.
posted by maudlin at 2:10 PM on January 14, 2011


Fein's unhealthy and irresponsible comments shame entire threads full of outrage. What side of the political spectrum is he on?
posted by jsavimbi at 2:19 PM on January 14, 2011


saulgoodman: And the Tucson shooter did get suspended from Community College after ranting belligerently about his constitutional rights being violated. What kind of truly apolitical person is so fixated on questions of constitutionality they interpret getting a bad grade on an essay as a violation of their constitutional rights?

While NPR did tie this in, at the very end, to the Tuscon shooting, they didn't assess his reasoning or thoughts behind his actions. And it's not saying that these people are apolitical, but that their primary reason for targeting a politician is not politics. For example, Sara Jane Moore was a police informant in radical political circles, and targeted President Ford in 1975 when "she began to believe that her situation as both political radical and police informer was becoming increasingly untenable and possibly dangerous." The politicians, as depicted here, are the convenient outlets to other pressures, even when those pressures are themselves political.

As mentioned in the transcript, approximately half of those studied had multiple targets, some switching focuses based on convenience. One unnamed person, after fixating on his governor for some while, chose the vice president because the VP would be in the area.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:38 PM on January 14, 2011


Damn you nebulawindphone. Now you've planted the PG bug in my ear, and it won't be easily satisfied. (This isn't really a bad thing, IMO.)
posted by hippybear at 2:38 PM on January 14, 2011


Asparagirl: Passion is brilliant and unique in its own way. It's basically one huge long song with recurring leitmotif used in a way which no other musical ever has. In some ways, it's kind of like Sondheim's answer to Yes' Tales From Topographic Oceans. (Yes, I know, that's not got a lot of fans, either.)

I haven't yet experienced Bounce/Road Show, but even bad Sondheim is better than most other musicals. I'll have to seek it out one of these days.
posted by hippybear at 2:40 PM on January 14, 2011


In our lifetime, those who kill, the news world hands them stardom.
posted by robself at 2:46 PM on January 14, 2011


this always bugged me.

LEE HARVEY OSWALD: I don't know what this is all about.

1st REPORTER: Did you kill the President?

LEE HARVEY OSWALD: No, sir, I didn't. People keep-- [crosstalk] Sir?

1st REPORTER: Did you shoot the President?

LEE HARVEY OSWALD: I work in that building.

1st REPORTER: Were you in the building at the time?

LEE HARVEY OSWALD: Naturally, if I work in that building, yes, sir.
posted by clavdivs at 2:59 PM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


One problem here is that even mentally ill persons have a metaphorical framework that filters the world they encounter - just like you and me. Much of that filter is laid down in childhood. There is sound cognitive neuroscience research that shows this to be the case. Mental illness is essentially a reality distortion field, with the "reality" defined as the everyday world that most of us mostly agree on, relative to essential rules of behavior, mores, etc. etc.

There's no doubt that the reality distortion field of mental illness can lead a person to do strange things, but it would be interesting to look into the cognitive propensities, relative to the range expressed by "ultra conservative to ultra liberal" that associate with the essential cognitive frameworks that a person obtains in earlier life, through childhood. There is good work accomplished about this in the political realm; it taps cognitive science research for conclusions. I think this research could be used to look closer into the problem.

I bring this forward because it's my guess (no evidence, yet) that those *essential* frames can be influenced by political and other messages that resonate with them, thus leading a mentally ill person down a specific political or social action path - right alongside that person's specific-to-illness cognitive distortions...i.e. one influences the other.

Question: Why wasn't Loughner influenced by certain liberal, or religious points-of-view? Why did he choose to attack this one person? Why was he offended (seemingly) by this specific person not answering his requests? Just posing questions here. And, the reason for that is that my hunch is that language does matter in many of these instances. There is no way we are ever going to be able to create experimental controls for this conjecture, but we have to realize that language results from a neurochemical event; those events do have impact on those who see the language (or image). This is not abstract stuff. We're talking about metaphorical filters that are essentially physical pathways in a brain (that are possible to change, through experience, including linguistic experience).

Forget the liberal or conservative labels for a minute. Language impacts behavior. So who's to say that language doesn't influence the behavior of a seriously violent or mentally ill person who is inclined toward violence (most mentally ill persons are not violent, any more than non-mentally-ill persons)?

So, we have a conjecture that people who commit or attempt assassinations have repeatedly failed in life. That said, what makes a person so inclined to cause this kind of mayhem choose one target over another? It could be random, but I tend to doubt that. Again, I think it has to do with the language or images that a person's current metaphorical filters resonate with. *If* this is ever shown to be the case, we might have to evolve (not dictate) into a culture that is more careful with warlike and violent metaphors used to describe political difference.

It takes a bit of work to change a metaphorical frame, but it can be done. I have problems with Obama, for instance, but I think that there is an essential part of him that is near genius in re-framing metaphorical references in a way that makes some minds think a little deeper than sloganeering. Other politicians come to mind here, too. We are now about - I think - a very slow evolutionary process of making these changes. I hope.

Making someone your enemy, through language (or any other way), just doesn't work for long run, civilized culture. What happens when you need to depend on someone who usually agrees with you only in marginal ways, but has been alienated from you by rhetoric, or images. And what about the unstable person who isn't asking hard questions, but happens on a slogan that resonates? That's trouble!
posted by Vibrissae at 3:40 PM on January 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Came in here to mention what nebulawindphone said about "Family Snapshot", so I'll just quote a couple of lines (POV of the assassin, natch, addressing his target- dang, this song still kinda gives me chills)-

I don't really hate you, I don't care what you do
We were made for each other, me and you
I want to be somebody, you were like that too
...
I need some attention, I shoot into the light
posted by hap_hazard at 3:52 PM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just so there isn't too much confusion between the assassination of prominent figures and the more widespread right-wing political violence. Very little, if any, of the political violence on the far right takes the form of political assassinations. Assassinations of ordinary people are not unknown, but they don't get the attention like assassinated politicians.

The other way to say this is the study doesn't address people like Timothy McVeigh or Joseph Paul Franklin. Franklin was the real life model for Hunter, the novel McVeigh was most strongly influenced by in planning the Oklahoma City bombing.

This makes the problem of right-wing violence, assassinations and eliminationist rhetoric a little more complex than the last week played it. Right wing violence most often targets people who are easily marginalized and denied protection of the law. This is why malicious harassment laws were passed, for instance.

So if you think the Secret Service study lets the right wing off the hook, dig a little deeper.
posted by warbaby at 3:55 PM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Right wing violence most often targets people who are easily marginalized and denied protection of the law. This is why malicious harassment laws were passed, for instance.

Every time you read about some racist assault or harassment, every time you read about a queer-bashing or a burned synagogue or a protest at the home of an employee of a family-planning clinic: that is right-wing violence. The media only calls it such when somebody dies because acknowledging that right-wing violence is an every day, all the time thing would disrupt the "both sides are equally bad" narrative.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:19 PM on January 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


In regards to "political assassins must be crazy, from the NPR piece, and Fein:
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.
Less stable that the general population, and saying that addressing annoniminity through attempting to kill someone famous is not crazy ... well, I'm re-evaluating Fein's threshold for crazy.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:19 PM on January 14, 2011


Question: Why wasn't Loughner influenced by certain liberal, or religious points-of-view?

The thing is, it's awfully easy to explain this as a pure historical accident.

Loughner grew up in a place and time without much violent rhetoric on the left, and without much violent religious rhetoric. Angry, violent guys of his generation who were looking for an ideology had two big choices: the right-wing militia movement or one of the violent strains of anarchist anti-globalism. Guess which one of those is easier to find in Arizona?

It's easy to believe he could have latched onto another movement in a different place or time: revolutionary socialism if he'd grown up in the US during the 60s or 70s, the IRA if he'd grown up in Belfast, radical Islam if he'd grown up in Yemen, the ELF if he'd been in a hippie town in Oregon, whatever. The fact that he picked the biggest violent movement around and it happened to be right-wing says less about the psychology of right-wing politics and more about the role of familiarity and convenience in guiding our political identities.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:23 PM on January 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


Less stable that the general population, and saying that addressing annoniminity through attempting to kill someone famous is not crazy ... well, I'm re-evaluating Fein's threshold for crazy.

Right. Relativism is a strange bedfellow in a civilized society. A society - i.e. a group with largely understood rules, must define limits to behavior in order to survive. Many political assassins maintain a rigid internal monologue to rationalize action; what I fail to get about Fein's argument is that *relative to the group*, these actions are not crazy. Sure, they make sense to the killer, and maybe a few others, but that's about it.

We do need to cut back on the linguistic heat, but we should also damn well use this experience to start looking at how to identify and effectively treat the most mentally unstable among us.
posted by Vibrissae at 4:40 PM on January 14, 2011


trying to suggest might be fairly laid at the feet of the Limbaughs, Becks and Palins of the world

Man I laughed hard when I read that. And don't forget the Berkley study! Reagan = Hitler.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 4:41 PM on January 14, 2011


Every time you read about some racist assault or harassment, every time you read about a queer-bashing or a burned synagogue or a protest at the home of an employee of a family-planning clinic: that is right-wing violence.

And is every assault on a Scotsman right-wing violence as well? Or just the assaults on true Scotsmen?
posted by Etrigan at 5:47 PM on January 14, 2011


the study (which I've now read completely) is a little odd. The cases were coded so the analysis and comparison could be done without reference to the attackers and their targets. This is fine, as far as it goes, but the data table isn't included in the report. This is odd, because for their purposes (training to prevent assassinations) these specifics would be very valuable.

The only identifiably right-wing assassins mentioned in the study are Robert Matthews and the Order. This seems a little odd, since John Wilkes Booth, Byron De La Beckwith, James Earl Ray and others form a compact subgroup of assassins with considerable operational similarities - political motivation, planning, successfully escaping, acting with others, etc. There are enough of them that it seems a shortcoming to leave that out of the study. This is noteworthy because the subgroup of right-wing assassins is markedly different than the aggregate profile at the center of the study's conclusions.

Most law enforcement studies and reports are not very accurate in painting an overall picture of political violence in the US. Equally, disappointing is NPR's coverage of the report that exaggerates the shortcomings of the report as if they were the important points to takeaway.

the absence of a comprehensive database of major cases of political violence in the United States is a deficiency that really needs to be remedied. When the RAND/St. Andrews chronology of terrorism was developed, it brought about great changes in the study of terrorism. A comprehensive database/chronology of American political violence would do a great deal to put studies like this one on a more objective basis.
posted by warbaby at 7:39 PM on January 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Political Violence and Terrorism in Modern America
A Chronology
posted by clavdivs at 9:41 AM on January 15, 2011


And is every assault on a Scotsman right-wing violence as well? Or just the assaults on true Scotsmen?

You're right, violence motivated by and carried out to achieve the ends of right-wing ideology shouldn't be automatically considered right-wing violence. Good thought, well-conceived.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:35 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


You're right, violence motivated by and carried out to achieve the ends of right-wing ideology shouldn't be automatically considered right-wing violence.

If you genuinely believe that racism is one of the "ends of right-wing ideology," then you'll never be convinced that you may have overstated your case just the tiniest bit. Good day, sir.
posted by Etrigan at 7:33 AM on January 16, 2011


Enjoy your rich fantasy life.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:56 AM on January 16, 2011


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