Roger Simon: Profiling school shooters and assassins is futile
It seems so obvious: If we do a comprehensive study of domestic terrorists, assassins, school shooters and violent stalkers, we can come up with a "profile" of who they are. Then law enforcement can look for the people who fit that profile and stop them.
If only it were that easy.
Robert A. Fein is a forensic and national security psychologist. He has pioneered in the field of threat assessment. He worked for more than 20 years with the Secret Service and co-directed two major studies, one focusing on assassination and the other on school attacks. He left the Secret Service about 10 years ago and is now on the faculty of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Harvard Medical School.
"Early in the 1990s, my colleague, Secret Service Agent Bryan Vossekuil, and I were asked to do an operational study of assassination," he told me, "a study that might help Secret Service agents prevent attacks on those it protects.
"We studied 83 persons involved in 74 attacks and near-attacks from 1949 to 1996. We interviewed 20 of them. Their targets were persons of prominent public status: Presidents, other Secret Service protectees, governors, major Hollywood stars, even baseball players."
Fein and Vossekuil talked to people whom history has forgotten and some whom it may never forget, like Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert Kennedy in 1968. But did these killers and would-be killers have common demographic backgrounds or psychological traits that could lead to a "profile" that law enforcement could use?
"For many years, people thought perhaps we could find a profile of assassins, attackers, school shooters," Fein said. "After Columbine, many thought that there was a 'profile' of a school shooter: a depressed, alienated, male teenager."
But there was no profile. Fein and Vossekuil found shooters who did well in school and others who did poorly. Some had friends; others did not. Some had disciplinary problems, and others didn't.
"When we teach this (to law enforcement agents)," Fein said, "we say that there is no descriptive, demographic or psychological profile of a school shooter. But let's just imagine that there is a profile. The profile is of a Caucasian male between 14 and 17 who dresses in clothes that grown-ups think are a bit weird, who is not doing well in school, who is grumpy much of the time, and who has problems in his social relationships. Does anyone know a kid like that?"
Yeah, just about everyone.
"So, if there was a profile - and there is not - the profile would not be useful in identifying potential school shooters because so many kids would fit the profile," Fein said. "And very, very few of these kids would ever be a school shooter."
The same dynamic is true for other killers. "Too many persons fit any profile of assassins and terrorists for a profile to be useful in figuring out who is likely to act," Fein said. "Plus, a given assassin or terrorist may not fit a profile."
All presidential assassins have been male, for example. But in 1975 both Lynette Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, two women, broke the "profile" by attacking Gerald Ford in separate assaults. An assassination profile would not have identified them in advance.
Threat assessment, on the other hand, searches for "pre-attack" behaviors of people who have come to the attention of law enforcement. According to Fein, pre-attack behaviors by potential assassins or terrorists might include making efforts to find out where a target is or might be, deciding what kind of weapon to use, obtaining weapons, investigating what kinds of security might be present at a site where a target might be and deciding whether or not to try to escape.
If some of this seems obvious, some of it is. But it also has proven effective, though Fein hastens to add that threat assessment does not "predict" future violence, which is notoriously difficult to predict. What it does do is assess how far a person is down a pathway to violence.
In terms of domestic terrorism, a person who has extreme ideas will not necessarily ever act on them. "But if someone engages in pre-attack behavior, such as researching how to make a bomb, concern might grow," Fein said. "If the person tries then to buy ball bearings, concern would be increased because it appears that they are moving on a path toward mounting an attack."
Another threat assessment expert I interviewed who has worked with high government security agencies for many years told me: "We will never have enough agents to watch everyone who makes threats on the President. This was especially true during the administration of George W. Bush and now is true during the administration of Barack Obama. Threat assessment allows us to identify the ones to be most worried about."
The same is true for bombers and other terrorists.
"We have encouraged protectors and investigators to examine a subject's motives and planning capacity," Fein said. "Is there information that suggests a person is on a path to attack? If so, where is the person on the path? How fast is he or she moving? And what needs to be done to stop them?"
Roger Simon is chief political columnist for Politico.