It turns out that it’s rarely because of politics. NPR has a very good piece on what makes assassins tick. I thought this was particularly interesting:
“It was very, very rare for the primary motive to be political, though there were a number of attackers who appeared to clothe their motives with some political rhetoric,” Fein says.
What emerges from the study is that rather than being politically motivated, many of the assassins and would-be assassins simply felt invisible. In the year before their attacks, most struggled with acute reversals and disappointment in their lives, which, the paper argues, was the true motive. They didn’t want to see themselves as nonentities.
“They experienced failure after failure after failure, and decided that rather than being a ‘nobody,’ they wanted to be a ‘somebody,’ ” Fein says.
They chose political targets, then, because political targets were a sure way to transform this situation: They would be known.
Murderers Searching For A Cause
“If the objective is notoriety or fame, that’s the most efficient instrumental mechanism by which to achieve that. I don’t mean to be flip about that, but a public official is likely to bring them a substantial amount of recognition instantly, without having to achieve something,” says Randy Borum, a professor at the University of South Florida who worked on the study.
And one thing Borum and Fein say about choosing a political figure — as opposed to choosing a show-business celebrity — is that the would-be assassins are able to associate themselves with a broader political movement or goal. That allows them to see themselves as not such a bad person. In this way, Borum says, assassins are basically murderers in search of a cause.
“People make decisions to act, and then from that, construct for themselves and potentially for others a narrative about why that is OK, or what the rationale would be, or how this could be justified,” Borum says. “It’s sort of a reverse pattern from what we would typically think.”
This can be seen very clearly, Borum says, from the way many of the assassins in the study chose their targets. Though occasionally they would fixate on a single person who represented a clear political position, many just went from target to target to target.