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Unpacking the On Air Murders and ‘Targeted Violence’

The horrific murders of Virginia’s WDBJ journalists, Alison Parker and Adam Ward, at the hands of Vester Flanagan II is an example of what the Secret Service refers to as an incident of “targeted violence.” Secret Service researchers define targeted violence as “any incident of violence where a known or knowable attacker selects a particular target prior to their violent attack.”

The Secret Service, tasked with protecting the President of the United States and foreign heads of state, has over a century of experience in dealing with targeted political violence and has engaged in exhaustive research into the behavioral patterns of people who engage in this type of violence.

Their Exceptional Case Study Project was a pioneering research piece, which documented the reported thoughts and behaviors of over 80 individuals who either attacked, or planned to attack a public figure. The results of this study, combined with the Secret Service’s work on targeted school violence in their Safe School Initiative Report can provide some helpful information for public figures in the media, school principals, security professionals, law enforcement and intelligence operators.

Here are some of the highlights of their targeted violence research:

  •  “Handguns were the most common weapons used during a Principal Incident but a number of subjects reported using knives when they were unable to procure handguns.”
  • “While more than 60% of the subjects had had contact with a mental health professional at some point in their lives before the Principal Incident, fewer than one-fourth had such contact in the year before their attack or near lethal approach.”
  • “Most subjects had used weapons but few had formal training.”
  • “One-fifth of the subjects had been arrested for a violent crime.”
  • “Motives included wishes for notoriety, revenge, idiosyncratic thinking about the target, hopes to be killed, interest to bring about political change, and desires for money.”

Here are some of the highlights of their school violence research:

  • “Incidents of targeted violence at school rarely were sudden, impulsive acts.”
  • “Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack.”
  • “There is no accurate or useful ‘profile’ of students who engaged in targeted school violence.”
  • “Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help.”
  • “Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Moreover many had considered or attempted suicide.”

There are no easy answers here and, thankfully, violent incidents such as this are still rare, but this information can assist in attuning the senses of those in leadership positions to the warning signs that may otherwise be missed.

In my experience as a Secret Service agent interviewing potential assassins and attackers I feel that this is the most important takeaway from this research:

“In two-thirds of the incidents, the subject had a grievance. Usually grievances concerned the target (of the attack).” And, “Many subjects had taken action in response to a grievance, such as writing a letter or visiting an office.”

There are no easy answers here and, thankfully, violent incidents such as this are still rare, but this information can assist in attuning the senses of those in leadership positions to the warning signs that may otherwise be missed.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the Conservative Review. The featured image of CBS anchors grieving is of WDBJ-TV7 news morning anchor Kimberly McBroom, center, gets a hug from visiting anchor Steve Grant, left, as meteorologist Leo Hirsbrunner reflects after their early morning newscast at the station, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015, in Roanoke, Va. Reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward were killed during a live broadcast Wednesday, while on assignment in Moneta. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)