It’s been a little over a week since Jared Loughner’s assassination attempt of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  It was an extreme act of violence that has attracted considerable attention. Why did he do it? The primary explanations offered have been political and psychiatric. Each theory uses the tragedy to generate a prescription—according to the first account, we should amp down the political incivility; according to the second, we should provide better mental health care for the seriously disturbed.

Gavrilo Princip assassinating Franz Ferdinand

An alternative way of viewing the attempted assassination (one that isn’t incompatible with either of the other accounts) is suggested by a  Secret Service study described in an NPR broadcast on January 14. The study, conducted by psychologist Robert Fein and Secret Service agent Brian Vossekuil, collected information on 83 people who had completed or attempted assassinations.  Besides studying documents about these assassins or attempted assassins, Fein and Vossekuil interviewed many of them in prison. They found that, though political rhetoric was sometimes expressed, for the most part the assassination attempts weren’t politically motivated. And, though many of the perpetrators had mental health issues, they weren’t illogical in their reasoning about the attempt or too disorganized to be able to plan and carry out a plan of action. Instead, the feature that was particularly important in instigating their violence was that most had experienced recent failures and disappointments, and they felt as if they were invisible. As Fein explained to NPR “They experienced failure after failure after failure, and decided that rather than being a ‘nobody,’ they wanted to be a ‘somebody,’ ” The act was chosen, then, as an effective way to gain notoriety and fame. Many didn’t have a single individual they planned to kill, but switched from one target to another as the opportunity presented itself.

Fearing that one hasn’t amounted to much and wanting to do something that will have an impact on the world are of course not states of mind exclusive to potential assassins; most of us have had such thoughts at one time or another. As Ernest Becker puts it in Escape from Evil, “[W]hat man really fears is not so much extinction, but extinction with insignificance. Man wants to know that his life has somehow counted, if not for himself, then at least in a larger scheme of things, that it has left a trace, a trace that has meaning.” The desire for significance may lead one person to mentor ghetto youth, another to write a blog, and, if Fein and Vossekuil are right, it can lead still another person to attempt an assassination.  Becker details a variety of ways in which the desire to avoid insignificance can produce both individual and collective evil. Yearning to be somebody can at times be a terrible thing.