It's well known that in March 1981, John Hinckley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan. What's 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 was working with the Secret Service as a psychologist. In two of these incidents, he says, people with weapons and an intent to kill appeared at public events. In the two other incidents, the would-be assassins were intercepted before the events. Ultimately, all four cases were prosecuted. Two were convicted, and two were sent to psychiatric facilities, Fein says, though the government didn't exactly advertise it.
"These were not stories that hit the news, but they were situations that caused great concern for protectors," he says. "So after these incidents, the Secret Service leadership got together and said, 'We really would like to know more about the behaviors of these people.'"
Creation Of A Study
And so Fein and a Secret Service agent named 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. But also, Fein and Vossekuil went to visit many of these people in jail.
Fein says they went with a very particular pitch. "We'd say, 'We're here because we're in the business of trying to protect people and prevent these kinds of attacks. You are one of the few experts because you've engaged in this behavior. We would like to talk to you to understand your perspectives, your life.'"
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, though obviously we still don't know that much about Loughner himself. 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 non-entities.
"They experienced failure after failure after failure, and decided that rather than being a 'nobody,' they wanted to be a 'somebody,'" Fein says.
They chose political targets, then, because political targets were a sure way to transform this situation: They would be known.
Murderers Searching For A Cause
"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 you are able to associate yourself with a broader political movement or goal. That allows the would-be assassin to see himself as not such a bad person. In this way, Borum says, assassins are basically murderers in search of a cause.
"People make decisions to act, and then from that, construct for themselves and potentially for others a narrative about why that is OK, or what the rationale would be, or how this could be justified," Borum says. "It's sort of a reverse pattern from what we would typically think."
You can see this very clearly, Borum says, from the way many of the assassins in the study chose their targets. Though occasionally they would fixate on a single person who represented a clear political position, many just went from target to target to target.
"About half of the assassins in this study had multiple targets or what sometimes are referred to as directions of interest, throughout the course of deliberating about an attack," he says.
For example, there was one guy who was fixated on his governor until he heard the vice president was coming to his area.
"And he said he had read enough to know that there hadn't been anybody who had attempted to assassinate a sitting vice president," Borum says.
So he made the vice president his target. He told the researchers he thought he'd get more attention from historians. "He said in the books on assassination, there might even be a whole chapter on him," Borum recalls.
The other assumption that 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 Robert 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."
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."
Last Saturday morning at a Safeway in Tuscon, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords became the latest public servant caught in the crosshairs of an attacker's gun. This study suggests the attempt may have been driven by very powerful and personal motives. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.