Reports that police deployed a taser stun gun on a man brandishing knives outside Buckingham Palace might appear about a bizarre and rare incident, but the massive media attention it ignited reminds us of one possible motivation for attacking a Royal - the seeking of notoriety or attention for a cause or grievance. In fact a special unit of behavioural specialists and police, set up to monitor and help treat those fixated on public figures, is constantly checking a larger number of potential attackers.
Details are still sketchy, but some reports are that the man responded aggressively when challenged at the centre gates of Buckingham Palace, and it has been indicated he is going to be medically examined.
In the most comprehensive investigation of attacks on the British Royal Family, 23 were found to have taken place between 1778 and 1994. The study entitled 'Attacks on the British Royal Family: The Role of Psychotic Illness', found psychosis in 48% cases, with evidence of some mental disorder in four additional ones. Psychiatric evaluations were not available on several assailants, so, the authors argue, it's likely psychosis plays an even larger role in attacks on the royal family.
The study published in 'The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law' found one particular member of the Royal Family tends to be especially targeted - 83% of the 23 attacks were on the reigning monarch: George III was attacked six times, Queen Victoria eight, Edward VIII once, and Elizabeth II on three occasions. Of the remainder attacks, four involved the monarch's children, and one the spouse of the heir to the throne.
Only two attacks resulted in serious physical injuries. In 1864, Queen Victoria's son, Prince Alfred, was shot and seriously injured at a Grand Charity Picnic in Sydney. The attempted kidnap of Princess Anne in the Mall in 1974 left the princess unharmed, but led to four people shot and seriously injured.
Those protecting the Royal Family will be aware of the striking patterns that emerged in this research, conducted by David James, Paul Mullen, Michele Pathe´, Reid Meloy, Frank Farnham, Lulu Preston and Brian Darnley: no attacks occurred in royal residences, while 57% happened while the victims were in transit, riding in, or alighting from, carriages or cars.
Two cases, involving Edward VIII and Elizabeth II, concerned the monarch riding on horseback in a royal procession on the trooping of the colours. The taser incident yesterday reportedly took place during the changing of the guard ceremony, but the Queen and Prince Philip were at Sandringham.
This study, conducted by a team of forensic specialists including psychologists and psychiatrists, found 30% of attacks occurred at public royal events, two others at the theatre, and one at the races. Some 65% attacks occurred in London, three elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and the remainder in New Zealand and Australia.
The investigation, lead by Australian forensic psychiatrist, Dr Paul Mullen, based at Thomas Embling Hospital, Victoria, found historically, adolescent males have made six largely unannounced attacks on the monarch. The lack of prior warnings make this a particularly possibly dangerous group in terms of threat management.
These tended to be aggravated, alienated young men whose resentments against the world at large focused on the sovereign. Four were seeking infamy.
The authors argue disappointment of early ambitions combined with bolstering self-esteem explained why they wished for personal notoriety and to take revenge on an uncaring, rejecting world. Elements of suicidal despair appeared in all six.
It seems that in a particular group of disturbed North American adolescents, the desire to die, become famous through a destructive act, and fascination with arms or assassination, coalesce particularly dangerously. These factors appear to have been in play in a sub-sample of those who have attacked prominent people over the past 60 years in the US. It is interesting that some of the characteristics of this adolescent group are shared with those perpetrating North American high school shootings.
The US doesn't have a royal family, but the President comes closest to representing a similar figure symbolically. The leading investigation into 83 attackers and would-be attackers of public figures in the United States found two-thirds had histories of contact with mental health services; 23% had been evaluated or treated in the year before the attack. 43% of the attackers were deluded at the time of the attacks.
However, US experts have tended to downplay the role of mental illness in attacks on public figures, while their European counterparts have emphasised it.
In the 19th Century there was a presumption in the UK that those who showed aggression to the establishment had to be insane by definition, because the country was so well administered (according to the ruling class), it wasn't rational to attack its elite.
The authors of this study point out that William Gladstone the British prime minister at the time, reassured Queen Victoria, after yet another assault on her, that whereas foreign assassins had political motives, in England, those who attempted such assassinations, were all madmen.
Paul Mullen and colleagues in their paper contend that Gladstone's assurance to his Queen betrays a boast about the perfection of Britain's property-owning democracy, where surely only the mad would enter on a project of political change through the mechanism of assassination.
But psychiatrists need to guard against becoming agents of the state.
Scientific research into attackers of royalty, such as this study, find that even those who were psychotic were also protesting against real injustice. The psychosis may have lowered their inhibitions and altered their calculations, but political motivation and psychosis are not mutually exclusive explanations.
They are potentially different aspects of the same drive.
This helps explain why so few attackers intended the death of a royal, according to Mullen and colleagues.
Their assaults were usually demonstrations of discontent, not failed regicide. Even if the taser incident turns out to be nothing to do with the Royal Family, for those who feel ignored by society and who are harbouring grievances, the kind of media attention the taser incident provoked, provides a motivation for pursuing public figures, as it's through contact with such limelight, they believe they will finally be heard.
Yet the death of Andrew Pennington from being run through by a samurai sword when he tried to protect Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones in 2001 from a paranoid assailant, who had previously visited the MP's surgery between 50-100 times with obsessive grievances, shows that correctly assessing threat to all public figures, remains imperative.