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Few assassins fit the 'profile.' Most had no mental health treatment, made no threats

By Bill Dedman

Although the lay person may think that any person who commits an act of political assassination is, by definition, mentally disturbed, a 1999 Secret Service study of 83 people who made assassination attempts against public figures in America found that only one-third had ever received a mental health evaluation, and fewer than one-fifth had been diagnosed with a mental health or behavior disorder prior to the attack.

Of course, it's possible that others among the attackers had mental health issues but had not been screened or diagnosed. Most of the attackers had a history of suicidal attempts or had expressed suicidal thoughts.

"Although most attackers had not received a formal mental health evaluation or diagnosis," the researchers found, "most attackers exhibited a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts at some point prior to their attack."  And, "more than half of the attackers had a documented history of feeling extremely depressed or desperate."

The videos published online in the name of Jared Lee Loughner, who has been named by law enforcement officials as a suspect in Saturday's shooting of a congresswoman and a federal judge, appear to be the work of a "psychotic and paranoid" individual, according to a psychiatrist who reviewed the videos for msnbc.com. The psychiatrist has not treated Loughner and asked not to be identified.

"The YouTube video text by Loughner," the psychiatrist said, "reads like something from a psychotic and paranoid individual who thinks he is being watched/monitored, who is paranoid about the government, who has disorganized thinking, and who feels superior to people around him. (I-have-better-grammar-than-you, you-don't-know-you're-being-brainwashed, etc.) There also is the hint of big event(s) coming soon on the You Tube mid-December posting."

Few threats
The Secret Service study rebuts the common notion that there is a "type" or "profile" of a kind of person who commits such an act. Some are the stereotypical loners, and some have many friends. Some did well in school, and others did not. They were male and female, young and old.

No profile, no type of person, can fit all the attackers, and any profile would include far too many people who are not dangerous, the researchers found. In short: Profiles don't help law enforcement prevent attackers, but do tie up law enforcement resources.

Another insight from the study: Few of the attackers, only 27 out of 83, had conveyed a direct threat to anyone, and only eight of those had communicated such a threat to the target or to law enforcement.

Most attackers don't threaten, and most threateners don't attack.

But many warnings
The Secret Service did find that the attackers shared behaviors in common. The researchers are saying there is not a type of person, but there is a type of action, such as acquiring a weapon, and communicating their intentions (though not a threat) to others. Time after time, in the days after such attacks, the news emerges that the shooter had described the plans to others, who often took no action to alert anyone. This is similar to school shootings, in which the young people commonly warn others what is coming, without making a direct threat to the school, the Secret Service found in a later study.

The Arizona Republic reported that Loughner posted on his MySpace page in December just such a warning, about wanting to kill a police officer:

“WOW! I’m glad i didn’t kill myself. I’ll see you on National T.v.! This is foreshadow .... why doesn’t anyone talk to me?.."

"I don’t feel good: I’m ready to kill a police officer! I can say it."

Clear grievances
The Secret Service researchers also found that the attackers, even when they showed signs of mental illness, often had clear grievances that motivated their attacks. The community college attended by Loughner disclosed Saturday evening that he had been suspened in September,  and withdrew under pressure in October, after his videos and actions in class disturbed the school. This sort of loss of status or "severe situational stress" is common just before an attack. He then criticized the school online, calling its actions "illegal" for depriving him of the education he had paid for.

"An attacker or would-be attacker with motives that clearly are not 'political' is likely to be seen as 'crazy,'" wrote the researchers, psychologist Robert A. Fein and Bryan Vossekuil, a veteran Secret Service agent on the presidential protection detail.

"It has often been assumed that mentally ill assailants or potential assailants either have motives that are so irrational that they cannot be understood or have no motives other than their illness. This perspective is also incorrect. Subjects who were clearly mentally ill often had defined (and technically 'rational') motives."

Motives identified in the attacks included:

  • to achieve notoriety or fame
  • to avenge a perceived wrong
  • to end personal pain, to be killed by law enforcement
  • to bring attention to a perceived problem
  • to save the country or the world
  • to achieve a special relationship with the target
  • to make money
  • to bring about political change

Changing targets
Shifting of targets is common, the researchers found. A person with a grievance against one person or institution might carry out an attack on another person. In the best known example, John Hinckley attended Jimmy Carter campaign events in 1980, carrying a weapon, before shifting his attention to the new president, Ronald Reagan, whom he was able to wound in an attack.

The 1999 study was intended to help Secret Service agents and others look for those behaviors, and to move away from the trite and untrue notions that only certain types of people are capable of such an act, or that people "suddenly snap." Assassins don't snap — they plan.

You can read the full study of assassins here, in a PDF file: http://www.secretservice.gov/ntac/ntac_jfs.pdf. And a later report on school shootings is at http://www.secretservice.gov/ntac.shtml.

P.S. A note on the word "rampage": It's popular to call these kinds of shootings a "rampage," but the researchers who study such shootings object to the word rampage. Someone on a rampage is rushing wildly about. Bulls go on rampages, but assassins rarely do. Why do the experts object? Because their research shows that these shootings (assassinations, school shootings, etc.) are hardly ever rampages. The scientists call them "targeted violence." These assailants do shoot one person after another, but they're usually shooting the people they're intending to shoot. Targeted violence. The opposite of a rampage. Maybe a neutral word is attack, or mass shooting, or assassination.


Kari Huus of msnbc.com contributed reporting.