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The Mind of the Assassin: The Case of Jared Lee Loughner

research reveals true motives behind assassination attempts

If the development of insanity could be shown photographically, the before and after pictures of mass killer Jared Loughner would do the job. Look at the smile of the youth in the before picture-warm, innocent, and responsive- and compare that to the face in the recent mug shot- here is a man with a fixed stare and a spine chilling grin. Based on these images alone, one could surmise that, from a religious standpoint the devil had possessed this man or from a psychological standpoint that this individual had gone mad. In this mug shot, the inappropriateness of affect jumps out at you.

Now we can consider some of the facts surrounding the life of this mass killer, this would-be assassin of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Media reports indicate that as a boy, Loughner had played in a band and had friends, but as a college student that he became a loner. He so terrified faculty and students alike that he was expelled from the campus and referred for mental health treatment. As further reported in interviews with people who knew him, there was some indication that he resented women and especially women in authority. His rantings as revealed on his website were of no fixed political

"So why did he do it?" -this is the question on everyone's mind. And "How could it have been prevented?" Some pundits place the blame on harsh political rhetoric. Letters to the editor blamed the college and, predictably, the parents. Commentators implied that locking up people with serious mental disorders who seemed dangerous is the answer. Yet, given the constitutional rights that citizens have and the inadequacy of available treatment facilities for persons with mental illness, little could have been done in this regard. The parents undoubtedly were in a position of relative helplessness.

More recently, some attention is being paid to gun control issues, and certainly the leniency of gun control laws in America is relevant to the method if not the motive. Reasonable persons will agree that to allow a deranged person to have a Glock semiautomatic pistol is just asking for trouble. But our concern here is with the more complex psychological factors involved in the making of an assassin.

Thanks to exhaustive research on 83 assassins and attempted assassins, undertaken by psychologist Robert Fein and secret service agent Bryan Vossekuil, we can make inferences concerning the likely motives behind the seemingly senseless Tucson killings. Published in 1999, their groundbreaking article entitled "Assassination in the United States: An Operational Study of Recent Assassins" is available on the secret service website at

The major findings as revealed in personal interviews conducted with famous criminals such as Arthur Bremmer who paralyzed George Wallace and David Chapman who killed John Lennon and many others whose feats were less widely publicized reveal some clear patterns:
77% were white and 86% male
51% had used a handgun and 30% a rifle
25% were employed full time
57% were not delusional
61% had been evaluated or treated for mental health problems
41% had shown signs of being suicidal and 39% had a history of substance abuse
97% had a history of strongly expressed resentment and grievances
0% sent a direct threat to the person targeted

Other relevant facts were that around half were single; most had no children, and some expressed remorse for what they had done. According to the authors, because many felt suicidal, they felt they had nothing to lose. The acts of assassination were carefully planned, yet rarely was any political motive apparent. This fact was evidenced in the fact that over half of those who targeted political figures pursued multiple targets.

The overriding theme that emerges from the study is that the assassins and would-be assassins were losers in their personal lives and aiming to have an impact on the world. Their delusions sometimes played into this, but they were never completely divorced from reality. Thus people who didn't count for much of anything would now count for something. These themes are relevant to the life of Jared Loughner who had been rejected by the military, thrown out of college, threatened by his father, and spurned by former friends. He would have then as the other would-be assassins and assassins have had serious anger and resentment.

One aspect of assassination that the authors do not mention is contagion. Yet sociological research indicates that such mass killings tend to come in clusters. We have seen this pattern today with school shootings and with whole-family killings that were extremely rare in past decades. It is my belief that because of the risk of contagion, other high profile politicians are at considerable risk at the present time.

Another problem that limits any empirically based study of this sort is the inability to combine categories. Consider a white male who is suicidal, delusional, extremely resentful of consecutive failures, who shows symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia and sets out to purchase a handgun. These characteristics which spell out danger mark the exact profile of Jared Lee Loughner.

More from Katherine S. van Wormer M.S.S.W., Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Katherine S. van Wormer M.S.S.W., Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today