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Political Assassinations


I have just completed a manuscript titled Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders, which is slated to be published by Carrel Books, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, in August 2017. As I prepare for publication, I plan to write a series of blogs discussing the fascinating stories recounted in the book.

To assist in analyzing tales of assassinations and attempts, the book relies on a typology of assassins. The classification system is a modification of the system that James W. Clarke employed in his 1982 book American Assassins: The Darker Side of Politics. Assassins are divided into five categories according to their intentions. The individuals and groups within each category possess common characteristics that explain, to some extent, why they acted as they did.

Anyone familiar with the concept of mens rea (a guilty mind) in criminal law will caution that understanding intentions is at best an uncertain enterprise. Criminologists examine indicia of intent, but no one claims to understand human motivations with any reasonable degree of certainty. The point is well taken. Moreover, discriminating readers may disagree with the classification of a particular person in one category versus another. Nonetheless, despite the potential hazards inherent in delving into the psychology of the human mind, attempting to discern motives can be useful in understanding why would-be assassins do what they do.

Type 1 is a category reserved for rational actors who understand the political purpose of killing a public figure. These types of actors are zealots who seek to advance a political cause by eliminating a prominent individual who stands in their way. Cause-and-effect calculations are important for a Type 1 assassin. Perhaps the public figure is the architect, or perceived architect, of a policy that negatively affects the actor. In other cases, the assassin’s target is a symbol of a distasteful regime and, therefore, removing the symbol is tantamount to a symbolic victory. These types of actors may be neurotic or emotionally disturbed, but first and foremost they are driven by a rational desire to remove a troublesome public figure. Mentally healthy individuals may question whether any would-be assassin is genuinely “rational,” but the desire to kill an offender is rational in the sense that the actor understands the nature of the act—that is, he distinguishes between right and wrong as well as fact and fantasy—and works to achieve a political goal.

A Type 2 assassin, by contrast with a Type 1 actor, is motivated by an egocentric need for recognition. Although this type of actor is not cognitively impaired or delusional, he or she is less interested in achieving a political goal than a Type 1 assassin is. Legend has it that when someone asked Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, he replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” The same reason can be given for why a Type 2 actor tries to kill a prominent public figure. If a person with low self-esteem seeks to compensate for a lack of social status, the most efficient way to garner attention is by killing a high-status person. Accordingly, the response to the question of why a Type 2 actor employs violence is “Because that’s where the attention is.” A nobody becomes a somebody when a nobody kills a somebody. From that point on, whenever historians speak of Famous Person X, they invariably speak of Infamous Person Y. The assassin has affected public policy, but the political repercussions are secondary considerations. Changing public policy is crucial for a Type 1 actor, but an ancillary outcome for a Type 2 personality.

A Type 3 actor is far more isolated and emotionally disturbed than a Type 1 or Type 2 actor. In modern parlance, a Type 3 individual is a sociopath, feeling no compunction about taking the life of another human being. A Type 1 or Type 2 actor understands that assassination will cause pain to the person who is killed and his or her family, but believes that the benefits outweigh the costs. A Type 3 actor is incapable of empathizing with the target. This kind of killer believes that life is so meaningless and devoid of purpose that the death of another human being carries no moral consequences. A killer for hire who accepts payment to assassinate a public official is driven only by the desire to earn a fee. A person who believes that a public official personifies a hated segment of society will seek to remove the official. In short, a Type 3 actor perceives reality accurately, but he or she has no capacity to respond emotionally.

A Type 4 actor corresponds to what a layperson would call “crazy.” This type of would-be assassin suffers from extreme emotional or cognitive distortion. In some cases, the individual suffers from hallucinations and has only a tenuous hold on reality. When questioned, a Type 4 actor often explains that he heard voices inside his head telling him to act. He acts against a prominent public figure because he believes the figure is somehow responsible for all manner of real or imagined maladies. Like a Type 3 assailant, a Type 4 personality is isolated from friends or family, or at best enjoys strained social relationships. The difficulty with anticipating the actions of a Type 4 offender is that this person acts based on an irrational motive, which means that it is almost impossible to predict his actions beforehand. Although neighbors and coworkers may sense that the person is maladjusted and ideally should receive mental health treatment, the lack of an effective psychological or psychiatric intervention does not necessarily mean that the person will harm himself or others.

Finally, Type 5 is reserved for “miscellaneous” or “other” motives. In other words, the person or persons acted for a variety of motives, some of which are unknown or unknowable. When a Lynch mob killed Joseph Smith in 1844, most members of the mob were incensed at the beliefs and behaviors of the Mormon leadership. Given the psychology of mob behavior, however, the researcher cannot identify the motives of the individuals who participated in the murder. Some assassins, such as Carl Weiss, the man who shot Louisiana politician Huey P. Long, act on inscrutable motives. Long was a charismatic, larger-than-life political figure. It would be easy and convenient to assume that Weiss opposed Long’s policies and therefore, in keeping with a Type 1 actor, sought to eliminate the object of his wrath to accomplish a political purpose. Yet the historical record suggests that Weiss was not an outspoken critic of the Long administration. Prior to the time that he shot Long in 1935, Weiss appeared to be happily married with a well-adjusted family life. He was a physician and apparently well respected. Because he did not evince the attributes typically associated with assassins, his motives are difficult to fathom. Perhaps Weiss was a Type 1 killer, harboring enormous animosity against Huey Long’s political agenda. Perhaps Weiss was sliding into the type of madness associated with a Type 4 personality. The available evidence does not provide a definitive conclusion. In these types of cases, the best that can be said is that the would-be assassin acted for reasons that may never be understood.

In future blog postings, readers will discover a variety of individuals and motives. The common link among all of them is that they believed violence was the answer to a perplexing problem. To make sense of the complex individuals and their crimes, the book is organized chronologically according to the type of assassin. Thus, Type 1 assassins are discussed from the earliest in time to the latest. Similarly, Type 2, Type 3, Type 4, and Type 5 assassins are discussed using the same format. The earliest case covered here dates from 1835, when Richard Lawrence (Type 4) attacked Andrew Jackson, while the latest episode occurred when Jared Lee Loughner (Type 4) shot Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2011. Regrettably, given the long tradition of political violence in the United States, other cases may occur in the years to come.

In my next blog, I will discuss the most famous political assassination in American history: the murder of President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. This episode can be found in Chapter 1 of the book.


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