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Fri January 14, 2011
Health

Fame Through Assassination: A Secret Service Study

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:31 am

It's well known that in March 1981, John Hinckley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan. What is 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 worked 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

So Fein and Secret Service agent 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. Fein and Vossekuil also 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.

Nonpolitical Killers

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 Jared Loughner, the suspect in the attack, or his motives. 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 nonentities.

"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 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.

"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."

This can be seen 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 that the vice president was coming to his area.

"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.

Changed Perceptions

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.

"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, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords became the latest public servant caught in the cross hairs of an attacker's gun. This study suggests the attempt may have been driven by very powerful and personal motives.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

It would be hard to count the media stories this week that began: We don't know the shooter's motive but...

MONTAGNE: After the "but," people have speculated about everything from insanity to the tone of politics. This morning, to be clear, we still don't know the motive of Jared Loughner. He's accused of killing six people at a congresswoman's public meeting.

INSKEEP: It turns out we can add some facts to this debate. We do know the motives of many other people who attacked political figures.

NPR's Alix Spiegel found a detailed study of past assassins and would-be assassins. It offers insight into what makes a person pull the trigger.

ALIX SPIEGEL: It's well-known that in March of 1981, John Hinckley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan. What's not well-known is that several years later, the life of the president - and the life of the vice president - were threatened again - in fact,�not just once.

Dr. ROBERT FEIN (Psychologist): In the space of 18 months, four situations came to the attention of the Secret Service.

SPIEGEL: This is Robert Fein, who in the mid-'80s 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 two, they were intercepted before the events. Now, all four of these cases were ultimately prosecuted, though the government didn't exactly advertise it.

Dr. FEIN: These were not stories that hit the news, but they were situations that caused great concern for protectors. 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.

SPIEGEL: And so Fein and a Secret Service agent named Brian Vossekuil undertook the most extensive study of assassins and would-be assassins ever done. They identified 83 people who had completed assassinations, or made assassination attempts, since 1949 - some cases were 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 - went with a very particular pitch.

Dr. FEIN: 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 with you to understand your perspectives, your life. And many people said: I would be very glad to talk with you.

(Soundbite of recording)

Dr. FEIN: How did you feel about Vice President Bush at the time, as a person?

Unidentified Man: Bush was the vice president, running for president. He was a very important person, a very famous person.

SPIEGEL: This is tape from one of those prison interviews - a man who never made national headlines, but brought a gun to a rally of then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush during the 1988 campaign. We're not identifying this man because as a condition for doing the interview, Fein and Vossekuil agreed not to release his name. The man is asked how he chose his target, his preparation, motives, intimate details of his process. They asked these questions of everyone, then combined the answers with other sources and analyzed the information.

In 1999, they published the results in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. And the insights of this study are really interesting to look at in light of the Arizona shooting. Perhaps the most interesting finding - at least, to me - is that according to Fein and Vossekuil, assassinations of political figures were almost never for political reasons.

Dr. FEIN: 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.

SPIEGEL: What emerges from the study is that rather than being politically motivated, most 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, often led to their true motive: They didn't want to be nonentities.

Dr. FEIN: They experienced failure after failure after failure, and decided rather than being a nobody, they wanted to be a somebody.

SPIEGEL: They chose political targets then because political targets were a sure way to transform the situation; then, they would be famous.

Randy Borum is a professor at the University of South Florida, who worked on this study.

Professor RANDY BORUM (University of South Florida): 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.

SPIEGEL: In the interview tapes of the man who attempted to assassinate George H.W. Bush, you hear very clearly this longing for fame.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man: Being on the front page of every newspaper in the country.

SPIEGEL: The tape here is a little hard to understand. This is what he said: Being on the front page of every newspaper in the country, your name permanently in history as a person who made an assassination attempt - you become an instant celebrity.

And one thing Borum and Fein say about choosing a political figure - as opposed to, for example, a show business celebrity - is that the attacker is able to associate himself with a broader political movement or goal, which allows the assassin not to see himself as such a bad person. In this way, Borum says, assassins are basically murderers in search of a cause.

Prof. BORUM: People make decisions to act, and then from that construct for themselves - and potentially, for others - a narrative about why that is OK, or how this could be justified. It's sort of a reverse pattern from what we would typically think.

SPIEGEL: You can see this very clearly, Borum says, from the way many of the assassins in the study chose their targets. Though occasionally they'd fixate on a single person who represented a clear political position, many just went from target to target to target.

Prof. BORUM: About half of the assassins in this study had multiple targets - or what sometimes is referred to as directions of interest - throughout the course of deliberating about an attack.

SPIEGEL: For example, there was one guy who was fixated on his governor until he heard the vice president was coming to his area.

Prof. BORUM: He said he had read enough to know that there hadn't been anybody who had attempted to assassinate a sitting vice president of the United States.

SPIEGEL: So he made the vice president his target. He told the researchers that he thought this would get him more attention from historians.

Prof. BORUM: In the books on assassination, there might even be a whole chapter on him.

SPIEGEL: Now, 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. Forty-four percent had a history of depression; 43, a history of delusional ideas. 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.

Mr. FEIN: There's nothing crazy about thinking that if I attacked the president or a major public official, I'd get a lot of attention. I would get a lot of attention. My goal was notoriety. That's why I brought the weapon.

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

Mr. FEIN: They were quite organized, because one has to be organized - to at least, some extent - to attack a public official.

SPIEGEL: Last Saturday morning at a Safeway in Tucson, congresswoman 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.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Gabrielle Giffords' health continues to improve after opening her eyes on Wednesday.

MONTAGNE: On Thursday, she sat up with assistance, and began moving her arms and legs. Her husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, is at her side.

INSKEEP: And at his request, NASA has selected a backup in case he's not able to join a space mission he's slated to command in April. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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