Attack as response to failure

Instantly notorious

Jared Loughner may not be “crazy” or irrational at all. He might instead be utterly typical of people who attack politicians: For most of them, the notoriety that comes with such an attack, whether it ends in assassination or not, is a perceived solution to a specific psychological problem.

And that problem is the feeling of invisibility or anonymity that often follows failure.

This, at least, is the upshot of this story on NPR, which in turn refers to this study from 1999 in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. (Lainey, in a comment under the previous post, linked to a Wired article quoting the same report.)

That study examined the 83 people who had attacked public officials between 1949 and 1999, and found that the attackers

  • almost never had political reasons
  • had often experienced a big failure or reversal in the year before the attack,
  • often felt invisible as a result,
  • didn’t want to be “non-entities” or “nobodies”,
  • and saw the notoriety of being an assassin as the solution.

As one would expect from such a profile, the attackers often did not target one particular politician (as an attacker with political motives would), but first decided to attack, then searched for a target. To quote from the report,

assassins are basically murderers in search of a cause

Failure is, of course, one of the twin topics of my forthcoming book, the other twin being success. This, I must say, is a response to failure that had never occurred to me before. The more one learns about the human psyche, the more mysterious it becomes in its nether depths.

30 thoughts on “Attack as response to failure

  1. That study was the one referenced by Lainey in your previous post. Her link was to which referenced the study by the Secret Service which is the one that was published originally in 1999. Very interesting study with a lot of findings that seemed counter-intuitive to the person who responds emotionally to these attempts… much as the media and political figures have done in the most recent case.

    I offered (and believe) that Loughner was driven more by personal “demons” than any political motive. I have always understood that these people were motivated by a desire to be recognized, to be famous (or infamous, which amounts to the same thing for some). I think, though it isn’t said in the study, that these people are very similar to those who attempt suicide. The difference is in the level of notoriety. The “everyday” suicide attempt is by a person who wants those close to him/her to pay attention, to be known to them. The wannabe assassin is more like the “suicide by cop” types who want to make a splash.

    In all cases, the psychiatric view seems to be “this is a cry for attention.”

    • So sorry. Somehow I missed Lainey’s comment on the previous post, and the link. I’ve updated the post above.

      Yes, “attention” does indeed seem to be the commodity these disturbed souls seem to be seeking. Ironic: It is the attention by others that they are seeking, and thus an inherently social reward. In older, more primitive societies (ie, not societies at all, but “communities”), such attention might have been forthcoming, thus obviating these radical reactions….

    • This seems to warrant a question about defining communities. We have many, do we not? We have the formal ones, of course, the towns, the cities, the states, and so on. Then we have the informal ones; our block, our neighborhood, our family and friends. We also have what appear to be ethnic communities; black, Hispanic, etc.

      I think the potential assassins are looking for attention primarily from the informal community, much like the would be suicide, with an eye toward the larger ones. Probably the largest such as the country, maybe even the world. Maximum notoriety, let’s say.

  2. Such attackers are also almost male, thereby making such attacks largely a “guy” thing.

    A contributing (but not the only) cause is that schizophrenics (those who hear loud inner voices ordering them, among other things, to kill people) – and who constitute one percent of us – are mostly male, thereby making schizophrenia largely a “guy” thing.

    A recent exception to murderous attackers being male, is Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who tried to kill Gerald Ford when he was president. However, such female attackers in history are, almost literally, counted on the fingers of one hand.

    • As Cyberquill pointed out, there were two female attackers in Ford’s case. But I’d like to add that neither was listening to “voices” or suffered from a quantifiable mental illness. Neither exhibited what we might call bizarre behavior in the months, weeks, or days previous to the incidents. Fromme may have been trying to impress Manson and Moore seemed to have radical political views (she felt that Ford was waging “war on the Left”).

  3. And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
    To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
    I am determined to prove a villain
    And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

  4. Incisive and highly informative as usual. Thanks for that. Keep writing, America needs you. But how come, thinking back over the last 50-60 years, so many victims just happen to be liberals or Democrats?

    • Conservatives and Republicans are used to being targets, do not expect to be loved, and can duck quicker. Just looking at presidential assassination attempts in the last 60 years, we have:

      G.H.W. Bush
      G. W. Bush

      Hmmm… pretty much all the presidents.. most of which have been Republican

      Non-presidential, we have:
      Malcolm X
      Martin Luther King
      Robert Kennedy
      George Wallace
      Vernon Jordan

      Looks pretty “balanced” to me except for the non-presidents. Not sure what category to place Malcolm X in. That assassination was more like Gracchus’, I think.

    • You omitted Gabrielle Giffords from your list, a blue-dog-turned former Republican, who—had she not been shot by a non-denominational basket case—could conceivably have been attacked by a disgruntled right-winger for having defected to the left, or by a disgruntled left-winger mad at her for calling herself Democrat while besmirching the Democratic brand by holding on to some conservative positions.

    • @Cyberquill

      You are right. I did forget her. And, yes, she could have been attacked by either of those. She wasn’t, though. Apparently, she was attacked by a guy who was both Right and Left and all crazy in the middle. Maybe we could call him and “Extreme Moderate”?

    • Or an equal-opportunity nut.

      The point is, when Bruce asks why “so many victims just happen to be liberals or Democrats,” the question arises—assuming the underlying assumption is correct and that the motivations for the attacks were political in nature—whether these liberals/Democrats were attacked for having been perceived by their assailants as (a) too liberal or (b) not liberal enough, i.e., whether the victims were attacked by individuals to their right or to their left.

      Keep in mind that those perceived to be traitors and turncoats are generally more despised than those perceived to be the enemy.

      John Lennon was certainly a political left-winger, yet what inspired his killer to pull the trigger was that the person who had written “imagine no possessions” lived in the Dakota where only the super-rich get to live.

      So yes, Mark Chapman killed a liberal, but it was the non-liberal aspect of his victim which prompted the murder. Therefore, John Lennon was shot from his left, not from his right.

    • Well stated, Cyberquill. One more observation (right or wrong though I may be):

      Bruce’s question implied something. That he thought that liberals and Democrats were more likely to be targets of assassination attempts. An ideological bias on his part, I think. And you didn’t appear to question that part. We seem to be willing to accept certain prejudices and stereotypes when it comes to politics. I think we should be as careful about those biases as we are about ethnic ones.

    • Bruce’s question certainly sounds a bit ideologically biased, but perhaps he is correct in that more liberals/Democrats have been targets of attacks than their conservative counterparts. I didn’t question that part because I haven’t done the count myself, in part because I believe—harking back to my earlier comments—that simply making a list based on official party affiliation would yield inconclusive results.

      One can’t simply conclude that Camp A is more violent because more individuals in Camp B have been attacked, for some of the bullets may actually have come not from Camp A but from a more radical wing of Camp B. And then it gets complicated.

    • One can’t simply conclude that Camp A is more violent because more individuals in Camp B have been attacked, for some of the bullets may actually have come not from Camp A but from a more radical wing of Camp B. And then it gets complicated.

      I think it gets complicated some time before that. What Bruce did was look back (mentally) at the past 50-60 years through a “filter” made of some preconceptions. It piqued my interest so I went looking for a list of notable assassination attempts. My “filter” was one of skepticism to the premise I saw implied in Bruce’s question. I wanted to determine the validity of that premise. The presidential attempts are 5 Republican to 4 Democrat. Almost every president had some credible threat arise. The only exception seems to be Jimmy Carter (a fact which still puzzles me). The non-presidential attempts are a bit more difficult to understand in a strictly political/ideological sense.

      As I mentioned, Malcolm X doesn’t fit neatly into the paradigm at all. Was he liberal/progressive or religious/conservative? I also don’t know if the successful assassination was the of multiple attempts. I do know he was killed by one of his own, so to speak. Suspicions abound that Elijah Muhammad was behind the successful one, seeing Malcolm X as a threat to his power. It certainly qualifies as a political assassination even if the politics were decidedly “local” in nature. And, if memory serves, Malcolm X was in the process of trying to steer the movement toward a more peaceful image.

      Of the rest, Kennedy and Wallace were the political figures (in the sense that they held or ran for office) but at opposite poles. King and Jordan we can put in the ideological camp called progressive or liberal. Though I think both were attacked primarily for racial reasons.

      And, as you say, we then have to look at the assassin’s (or would be assassin’s) motivation and background to get a better understanding.

      Too small a sample for good analysis.

      I am glad you brought up the Lennon case since that wasn’t mentioned in any list I found while Googling for the lists. It was certainly an assassination but it is treated as a murder. Conversely, the attempt on Wallace was eerily similar yet was included in the lists.

      Maybe we have to define what an assassination is, first and foremost.

      Wikipedia defines it thus:
      “An assassination is “to murder (a usually prominent person) by a sudden and/or secret attack, often for political reasons.”[1][2] An additional definition is `the act of deliberately killing someone especially a public figure, usually for hire or for political reasons.'”

      Webster places that as the 2nd definition and the 1st definition is:

      “Injure or destroy unexpectedly or treacherously.”

      Recently, a New Jersey police officer was gunned down”execution style.” I would say that attack qualified under the 1st definition. Were there quasi-political or ideological motivations involved? How about inflammatory rhetoric about the police as a factor?

      So many variables, so few answers.

    • Also, from an etymological perspective, assassin and hashish share the same root.

      Since left-wingers, on balance, are more given to toking up than right-wingers, it stands to reason that left-wingers are also more given to assassinating their detractors.

      Bruce’s thesis is hereby debunked.

  5. The problem I have with these Freudian root cause analysis that follows every occurance of spectacular violence in American society inspite of them is that they claim to have unearthened something new about human psyche whose roots like in modern day living or th decay of modern society.

    There is a tendency to humanize the perpetrator and link him or her to larger societal issues like “violence in society” or the “political climate” or “violence in pop culture or music ” etc.

    It then further tries to define a behavioral pattern that they hope can be used to spot such individuals in future through some smart forensics. That never happens and the violence just continues. They did this after the oklahoma bombing, after columbine shooting as well and every one of them exposed a new facet of the human psyche. I say why not just group all individuals who resort to violence as dysfunctional individuals ? I also find it bit of double standard that such analysis is done whenever the culprit is from within the society.
    Outsiders are considered undeserved of such psychological analysis and even if they are they are considered less worthy of a freudian defense

    I remember George Bush famously quotes – “These people don’t react to therapy” or “Therapy is not going cause terrorists to change their mind”. Just on that point I agreed with Bush 🙂

    We should be careful not to dissect the psyches of violence and just accept that its a very primal human reaction emerging from the lower chakras of human consciousness just like hunger and sex.
    I do agree to some extent that the living in a society that glorifies success and vilifies failure disproportionally there is room for improvements in society on how failure is perceived.
    I think failure should be discussed and perhaps failed individuals too given their fair share of fame if not fortune so its not seen as such a bad thing.
    I think what we need is an American Idol for the failures. Kids are not taught to deal with failures and accept it as part of human condition. For every success that is highlighted a failure must be given some spotlight as well and stressed that all is not lost with failure and in fact should be seen as a badge of honor. We need is a few fakirs of failures floating in the society with a fan following that people like Jared can join and direct his negative energy towards and get a sense of belonging.

    This sense of entitlement that the entire society and nation considers failure as such a anathema that they want it out of sight and buried so deep that people like Jared Loughner can’f find role models that they can identify with and look inwards.

    There is little realization that by american measures of failure about two thirds of planet would be considered a failure and what happens if they all thought of violence as the panacea for their misery.

    • Lots of ideas there, Suresh. Am I right that you’re suggesting that we should NOT study the psyches of dysfunctional/violent individuals — on the premise that we ALL have lower chakras and thus violence?

      That seems a stretch. Aren’t you simply curious what we might find if we had a way of studying these individuals? It’s sort of like science and medicine: You know most research budgets are wasted, looking for this compound or smashing those bosons together, but you suspect that one day we chance upon the cue, hidden in the detritus of failed experiments, that leads to the cure for cancer or the new energy source or ….

      Regarding failure as a topic: If I may say so, you might like what I have to say in my book…

  6. To violently attack someone in an attempt to draw attention still seems “crazy” and “irrational” to me. Why not redouble his efforts instead after failure?

    • Well, yes. But that’s because you’re healthy, Jeff. I guess the study authors would define as “rational” any action that coherently aligns an action with its desired consequence. So if an unhealthy indvidual craves “fame” (failing to distinguish between fame and notoriety), then this sort of thing is a “rational” measure that brings it about….

      Oh I don’t know. Thinking about it makes my head spin….

  7. A few years back The Economist in a piece on Reagan’s diary 

    “Ronald Reagan: The instinctual man”

    touched on his reaction to the attempt on his life:
    ”And the entry which tells you most? Just after Reagan’s near-assassination in March 1981, when he thought he might be dying:

    ” ‘But I realized I couldn’t ask for Gods help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed up young man who had shot me. Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all Gods children and therefore equally beloved by him.’ ”

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