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The study of U.S. assassinations over the last 60 years debunks some key myths about the miscreants behind the attacks. The Exceptional Case Study Project, completed in 1999, covers all 83 people who killed or attempted to kill a public figure in the United States from 1949 to 1996.
“We approached a number of people, many in prison,” says forensic psychologist Robert Fein, who co-directed the study with Bryan Vossekuil of the Secret Service. “We said you’re an expert on this rare kind of behavior. We’re trying to aid prevention of this kind of attack. We’d welcome your perspectives.” Fein interviewed 20 of the attackers who were still living and sifted old evidence from cases. His goal was to understand the sequence of thoughts, plans and motivations that transformed a downtrodden, but unremarkable person into an aspiring killer over a period of months or years.
Contrary to popular assumptions about public killings, the attackers didn’t conform to any particular demographic profile. But when Fein reconstructed their patterns of thinking, he was able to distill them into a handful of recurring motives for killing a public person — motives that seemed consistent regardless of whether a given individual was delusional or not (and three quarters of those who pulled the trigger were not).
Some hoped to achieve notoriety by killing a well-known person. Others wanted to end their pain by being killed by Secret Service. Still others hoped to avenge a perceived, idiosyncratic grievance unrelated to mainstream politics. Some hoped, unrealistically, to save the country or call attention to a cause. And some hoped to achieve a special relationship with the person they were killing.
Unlike terrorists, who sow panic with public threats, just 4 percent of assailants in the study warned their targets by sending threats. That silence underlined their desire to fly under the radar, says J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist at the University of California in San Diego who studies public figure killings.
Sirhan Sirhan, the man who assassinated Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968, practiced for months at a shooting range. He was seen practicing just eight hours before the killing. And in the investigation that followed, reviews of film footage revealed that Kennedy had been approached by his killer several times in what may have been dry runs in the weeks before his death.