Do political assassins and would be assassins tend to cluster on portions of the political spectrum? Those from the USA in particular, but assuming there isn't enough data, a worldwide answer may be more feasible.


For the sake of the question, suppose that just as an anarchist (or substitute with democrat, republican, etc.) with the flu remains an anarchist... that a mentally ill and violent anarchist remains a kind of anarchist, albeit not a very nice one. Political parties of every stripe disown and condemn supporters who seem crazy or criminal, but such retroactive definitions are incompatible with this question.

Also suppose that just a mentally ill person holding a job as a cook is still cooking decent food, that a mentally ill person working as a political assassin may well be serving saner (albeit immoral and criminal) ends, which place its sponsors somewhere on a political spectrum.

So the sample set is both the John Hinckleys, and the host of unknown James Bonds and their employers.

Note: It might help to view political orientation somewhat more broadly here. Having earlier trailed Jimmy Carter, the crazed Hinckley, (like Paul Schrader's fictitious Travis Bickle), seems quite apolitical so far as textbook two-valued right/left political spectrums go, as does Travis Bickle's non-fiction inspiration Arthur Bremmer. On the other hand, these characters, (real and imaginary), all put an extreme value on political fame, celebrity, and notoriety; it might be argued that some actual politicians do so as well, (i.e. placing the value of their own personal career in politics well above all other values), and are in that sense of the same party.

Speculation: the political orientation in a given system, (i.e. the spectrum), might be much less relevant that the overall instability of the political system as a whole, (the canvas the spectrum is painted on). As with Roman emperors and Henry VIII's wives.

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    I think there's going to be too much speculation driving these statistics, even given individual cases, that any conclusions deserve a very high degree of skepticism. – Joe C Jan 28 '18 at 20:44
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    @JoeC, Not that I'd necessarily disagree, but please clarify why you're forecasting excessive speculation. (In a sense you've just made a 2nd order speculation about future speculation.) – agc Jan 29 '18 at 5:44
  • I am pretty sure that John Hinckley's attempt had nothing to do with his political beliefs and everything to do with his mental state. Also I don't think his attempt was set in motion by a third party trying to do something so it would just end up with him being crazy. – Joe W Jan 26 '19 at 23:34
  • @JoeW, Thanks, that gives a clearer idea of what you meant by "too much speculation". See revised question. – agc Jan 28 '19 at 12:06
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    FWIW - The Global Terrorism Database is available for evaluating political violence (including assassination). However, it doesn't contain any information on the party affiliation or ideology of targets/perpertators. start.umd.edu/gtd/using-gtd – indigochild Jan 31 '19 at 21:12

No. Of the four successful assignations of U.S. Presidents (resulting in the targets death), two were politically motivated but likely not party motivated (Lincoln and McKinley), one was personally motivate/probably insanity (Garfield), and one is unknown (Kennedy... lets not feed the conspiracy here). Kennedy remains the lone Democratic President to be killed by assignation while in office.

Of the 45 U.S. Presidents, 20 have had at least one attempted or successful assignation against them that was either survived, foiled, or otherwise stopped (by the assassin's own choice). Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy both had prior foiled assassination attempts while in office and were counted once. President Lyndon Johnson is the last President to have never had a credible attempt on his life made against him. From Nixon to present, all U.S. Presidents had at least one attempt made against them, though none have been fatal (this is not counting the investigation of individuals for making such threats but never advanced beyond the initial threat... there are many of these of various repute and veracity).

When doing crime statistics, it is important to stress that despite the attempts, there is not a lot of attempts to say that statistically these threats break one way or another for a particular party. as it stands, Republicans have been seriously threatened or killed in eleven incidents to the Democrats 9 incidents, many of which were foreign attempts or attempts by mentally handicapped individuals who seem to have been motivated to kill a President more than a specific individual one.

Among the lesser threats, I have heard at least one Secret Service agent say that his experience has been Republican Presidents tend to be threatened more than Democratic Presidents. Although he has offered some speculation as to why this is, but these didn't appear to be anything resulting from a scientific study and I am aware of his partisan leanings. The Secret Service tends to investigate in an as apolitical fashion as possible, as their job is to protect the President regardless of party affiliation.

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  • Within the scope of assassination attempts against US presidents, this is a good answer. – agc Jan 29 '19 at 9:01
  • What is the source of all the information you present here? I see a lot of numbers, but I'm not sure where to go to learn more. – indigochild Jan 31 '19 at 21:09
  • Tabulated off of Wikipedia's article List of US Presidential Assassinations or similar title. – hszmv Jan 31 '19 at 21:21

I'm only giving a very partial answer but I'd like to propose a few directions:

First I would make a distinction between at least three cases:

  • Political assassination as an attempt by an individual or a group to rise to power by eliminating the current leader or main opponent. I think this covers pretty much all the cases of overall political instability, where political assassinations are part of a strategy to access absolute power by a rival.

  • State-sponsored political assassinations, which target individuals perceived as a threat and which usually happen abroad. Example: Jamal Khashoggi, perceived as a political threat by Saudi Arabia because of his political influence.

  • Individuals or small groups taking the initiative of political assassination. Many such cases would qualify as terrorism (especially if organized by a group), or be interpreted as the act of a mentally ill individual.

The first two cases are part of a gruesome but rational strategy in which the political flavor does not play a very significant role, except that this kind of decision is obviously not very democracy-friendly. The last case is more interesting, as OP reckons. Again I don't have any objective statistics, but I think it makes sense to study how specific political values affect the decision process:

  • Perceived level of threat. There are numerous cases of political assassination by people motivated by far right ideas, because they believe that the "white civilization" is under immediate threat. The origin of the threat and hence the target varies but the general idea is always something like "protecting the ethnic/cultural group I belong to".
  • Level of tolerance, and in particular how the life of any human being is valued. Extreme political ideas (from the left or the right, based on any criterion such as race or religion, etc.) tend to consider that their political enemies are not worth living, to some extent they are dehumanized. This makes it easier for a convinced person or group to consider murder as a legitimate course of action.

Thus the extreme ends of the political spectrum are more likely to cause partisans to endorse political assassination. In the US in particular, it's a natural educated guess to see the far right as a strong candidate. It would be easy to find examples but I'm not aware of any quantitative analysis.

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  • I'd categorize group efforts as having whatever orientation the group itself is. So if a group has orientation X and hires an apolitical assassin, it counts as X. – agc Jan 26 '19 at 14:46
  • Re "a rational strategy": it might be better to rephrase this to remove any needless connotation (and implied advocacy) that assassination is somehow, or sometimes, or necessarily, "rational". Granted various martial methods and schools make ample use of reason, invention, etc., in their strategems, but that's more in the line of game theory, and amounts to indirectly endorsing a particular set of "rules" for the game in question. – agc Jan 26 '19 at 14:58
  • @agc well imho assassination can be the result of a rational process, rationality does not necessarily include ethics. I agree however that the phrase could be misinterpreted so I edited it. I also added a conclusion. – Erwan Jan 26 '19 at 15:28
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    Re "ethics": Ethics, (however non-standard or peculiar), are necessarily involved in action and government. It would be irrational to deploy an assassin without carefully considering the consequences, both to the employer, (a group who employs assassins risks effectively training its discontented employees in how to overthrow it), and to their outraged victims and allies. Dangerous tools. – agc Jan 30 '19 at 15:16

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