Feature

For assassins, politics isn’t the point

A Secret Service study concluded that assassins target famous people primarily to be noticed themselves, said Alix Spiegel in NPR.org.

Alix SpiegelNPR.org

People looking for a political motive in the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords are unlikely to find one, said Alix Spiegel. Political assassination attempts are rarely motivated by partisan anger, a Secret Service study concluded; assassins target famous people primarily to be noticed themselves.

In that study, researchers exhaustively analyzed 83 people who had tried to assassinate a public figure since 1949 (some of whom succeeded), interviewing many of the perpetrators in jail. Psychologist Robert Fein, who worked on the study, said most attackers had “struggled with acute reversals and disappointments in their lives” and were eager for notoriety. By killing a political figure, rather than a Hollywood celebrity, for example, the attackers hope to “associate themselves with a broader political movement or goal. That allows them to see themselves as not such a bad person.” In effect, the decision to kill comes first, and the rationale follows, providing a “narrative about why that is okay.”

Shooting a politician, unfortunately, achieves the assassin’s primary goal: That’s why we know the names Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley, Sirhan Sirhan, and Jared Loughner.

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