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 haft 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 …