Oppression, threat, and assassination. Research on the social causes of assassination indicates that oppression is probably less important than threat in affecting the probability of assassination. Gross has defined oppression as “acts of physical brutality, including killing and limitation of freedom, humiliation of persons, economic exploitation, deprivation of elementary economic opportunities, confiscation of property” (p. 86). He suggests that even foreign domination causes assassination only if it is perceived as oppression, if a political party exists with “an ideology and tactics of direct action,” and if there are “activist personality types” ready to use violence (p. 89). Ethnic and nationalist conflicts appear to be far more important factors than socioeconomic conditions in encouraging assassination and other political violence. Political violence tends to be the work of higher-class visionaries and activists, in contrast to the lower-class predatory types who engaged in “common criminal violence” (p. 93).
The most systematic available evidence concerning the linkage between socioeconomic conditions and assassination is found in a cross-national comparative study for the United States National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (Kirkham et al.). Assassination is associated with political instability, which in turn reflects such factors as a low level of socioeconomic development, a high level of relative deprivation, and a high rate of socioeconomic change. Other contributing factors are a government neither very coercive nor very permissive, and high levels of externalized aggression and hostility toward foreigners, among minority and majority groups, and among individuals, as indicated by high homicide and low suicide rates. The United States is exceptional in combining an advanced level of socioeconomic development with the other features. It is noted that African Americans and other major sectors of the population do generally live under conditions internally approximating those found to be associated with relatively high levels of political violence. The findings suggest that socioeconomic conditions must interact with political and cultural factors to become significant in causing assassination and other political violence.
It appears that oppression becomes causally relevant only when it is interpreted as threat, whereas perceived threat in itself is sufficient to encourage political violence. One major implication of this general proposition is that economic conditions must become political factors to affect the level of political violence. A further implication is that political conditions must be interpreted as threatening in order to be causally significant. The process of interpretation is, then, the key to creating situations in which the probability of assassination and other political violence is significantly increased.
Threats may be real whether or not perceived. For a group to have fewer resources while another has more implies a present or potential threat to the life chances of the disadvantaged. The greater the differences, the greater the likelihood that the more advantaged group is living in part at the expense of the less advantaged (assuming they are bound together economically and politically in a real, if not necessarily formal, sense). Certainly, the less advantaged live more precariously and are more vulnerable to life’s miseries. For them, it is not difficult to see or believe that inequality is threatening. At the same time, the more advantaged will readily see or believe that underclass discontent or gains are threatening. At any given moment, the available resources are finite; the pie cannot be shared without someone having less if another is to have more. Both sides are likely to feel threatened by changeâ€”particularly by high rates of socioeconomic changeâ€”because it is difficult to predict just who will win and who will lose in the course of events.
The perceived threat posed by existing or changing economic or political conditions does not of itself necessarily produce violence. What is required is that an enemy be identified and that potential assailants be mobilized. Historically, this last step has been accomplished by a campaign of vilification of visible members of a targeted group (government, party, class, religion, nationality, race, or ethnic category), as well as of the group as a whole (Gross; Kirkham et al.). Responsibility for the threatening economic or political conditions is placed squarely on the targeted individuals and groups, who are depicted as entirely reprehensible, irredeemably monstrous, and perhaps even subhuman.
Unchecked, vilification produces a climate of extremism because the targets of the campaign tend to respond in kind. In such a climate, some individuals experienced in using violence may be deliberately recruited as assassins (hired killers). Others ( political actors) may progress in stages of activism from minimal political involvement to the conclusion that assassination is tactically essential. Still others (expressive reactors) may simply be caught up in the excitement of political conflict, finding in the rhetoric of vilification a means and focus for expressing their discontent, perhaps in assassination. Although individual cases exhibit some overlap and movement among them, these typesâ€”hired killers, political actors, and expressive reactorsâ€”must be analytically distinguished if the psychology of assassins is to be explored fruitfully.
The psychology of assassins. Psychological profiles of assassins are derived from limited and unrepresentative samples biased in several ways. First, assassins who attack governmental and other institutional figures have been studied, rather than assassins acting on behalf of such figures. Second, assassins of chief executives and other prominent individuals have been studied, to the virtual exclusion of those who kill minor officials and ordinary people. Third, only assassins who have been caught have been studied, so that almost nothing is known about those who are deterred or who escape detection and capture. Fourth, analysis has focused on expressive reactors, with little or no attention having been given to hired killers and political actors. Fifth, the presumption of psychopathology has been strong in both the selection of subjects for study, usually by psychiatrists, and in the analysts’ common tendency to see political (and other) violence as intrinsically abnormal and irrational. Finally, the possibility of organized, tactical assassination has tended to be dismissed in favor of an image of the assassin as typically a loner without coherent political motivation and unable to act in concert with others to further political aims.
Research on assassins and assailants of American presidents has found nearly all to be “mentally disturbed persons who did not kill to advance any rational political plan” (Kirkham et al., p. 62). Douglas and Olshaker argue that political intent or consequences are incidental, emphasizing instead the paranoid loser “assassin personality” (p. 219) as merely another type of murderer (delusional but not hallucinatory) essentially akin to senseless killers such as serial and spree murderers.
Ellis and Gullo found assassins other than “paid gunmen” and political agents to have long histories of psychological disturbance, to have experienced a life crisis shortly before the assassination, and to kill without aim or sense “as far as their political beliefs and aspirations are concerned” (pp. 190â€“250).
Harris has suggested that to understand assassins one must look beyond psychopathology to the more normal psychology of the “rebellious-rivalrous personality,” a type who “finds authority and restrictions irksome and strives for a redistribution of hierarchical status by competing with the successful lime-lighted rival” (pp. 199â€“200). Similarly, after pointing out the narrow subjectivity of psychiatric evaluations of assassins, Clarke argues for a classification based on social contextual as well as situational and diagnostic evidence. He identifies four types of assassins, as well as a residual of “atypicals.” His Type I, whose “extremism is rational, selfless, principled, and without perversity,” appears to be equivalent to political actors. Types II (neurotics) and IV (psychotics) are analogous to emotional reactors, and Type III (psychopaths, sociopaths) is perhaps analogous to hired killers (pp. 13â€“17).
Though recognizing the quite limited explanatory power of psychopathology, Robins and Post nevertheless invoke the concept of a “paranoid style” in trying to explain why many people who are not clinically psychopathological may share a belief that their government or other forces are threatening their physical or cultural well-being. Applying such a label to social movements and organizations merely reinforces the assumption that there must be “something wrong” with people whose experiences and beliefs differ significantly from those of the observer, and whose perceptions of threat may not be entirely unwarranted.
From the limited evidence available, it may be concluded that the hypothesis of prior psychopathology is supported for expressive reactors and may have some relevance for explaining hired killers. However, these constitute only a minority of assassins, most of whom are clearly motivated by political concerns based on religious, nationalist, racial-ethnic, and other widely shared ideologies.