views updated Jun 11 2018


In the eleventh century the Shiite Ismaeli convert Hasan ibn-al-Sabbah (c. 10501124), "the Old Man of the Mountain," appeared in Islamic Persia and for nearly fifty years led the struggle against both Sunni orthodoxy and Turkish rule. Persecuted and hunted, he established the mountain fortress of Alamut, which "became the greatest training center of fanatical politico-religious assassins that the world has known" (Franzius, p. 45). Hasan sent young men ( fidais, "devoted ones") singly or in small bands to kill military, political, and religious leaders aligned against him. Such was the suicidal fanaticism of Hasan's skilled killers that it was widely believed they must be stimulated by hashish. They were called "hashish-eaters," apparently shortened in Arabic usage to Assassins, which may also connote Asasi ("followers of the Asas," the true teacher) and perhaps in addition, "followers of Hasan" (Franzius, pp. 4748).

Defining assassination

In time, assassin came generally to mean one who killed an unsuspecting victim without warning, but the original sense of political purpose was never quite lost, and has become increasingly strong. To assassinate is to kill for a political reasonto secure or resist authority, to eliminate a rival for power, to prevent or avenge a political defeat, or to express a political grievance.

Political motivation distinguishes assassination from other deadly interpersonal violence. Unfortunately for analytic rigor, motivation is extremely difficult to establish. Indeed, after a useful discussion of the problem, Havens, Leiden, and Schmitt remarked at the end of their research that "perhaps attempts to determine motives are irrelevant, for once the act has been committed the public manufactures its own motive in harmony with its own political predilections" (p. 150). Political motives, like others, are often hidden or unclear, and cannot merely be inferred from the political significance or prominence of a target (Kirkham, Levy, and Crotty). Heads of state may be the victims of nonpolitical violence; ordinary citizens such as tourists may die as political surrogates or pawns. Nonetheless, it has been generally assumed that only attacks on important officials and other influential persons are politically inspired, and that common folk are too insignificant to draw the assassin's fire. Both assumptions are questionable.

The meaning of the term political blurs as power concerns and struggles permeate society and as the interdependence and interpenetration of different loci and forms of authority increase. Any area of social life, from religion and education to industry and entertainment, can be politicized, serving as a base, vehicle, or object of power struggles. Whoever emerges as a leading figure may have, or be seen as having, political significance as actor or symbol, in the sense once associated almost exclusively with the leaders of governments and parties. Charismatic figures are especially likely to attract the attention of an established or aspiring power-wielder who sees the potential value and danger of anyone who sways others.

Contemporary justifications of assassination and terrorism began in nineteenth-century Russian anarchism and have led in their most extreme formulations to the conclusion that death is appropriate for all who live as "part of the problem"that is, who try to carry on a normal life instead of joining in the war to destroy the existing world system, which is increasingly seen as culturally, economically, and militarily dominated by the United States. In such terms, every killing is an assassination, serving the political aim of demonstrating that all are guilty until injustice (as defined by the motivating ideology) is eliminated from the world.

One major consequence is that the meaning of assassination shifts not only to include common as well as prominent people, but also to include the killing of many as well as of one or a few. Assassination finally becomes synonymous with terrorism which may be understood as random violence whose specific victims are selected mostly by chance instead of design, irrespective of the varying innocence and political power of individuals.

The logic of terrorist theory thus leads to a concept of assassination in which the element of specification is ultimately dissolved. Of course, even terrorists find it necessary to make distinctions and set priorities. Dangerous adversaries must be distinguished from innocent bystanders. Opportunities must be weighed with regard to potential risks and benefits. Resources have to be matched to opportunities. Targets have to be selected with due regard for their tactical importance. All this suggests that assassination is characterized by selection rather than by specification. The point is that victims are selected because of the anticipated impact of the timing, place, or manner of their death. Their attributes as individuals may or may not be relevant concerns and, in any case, will be secondary ones. Their individuality is irrelevant as such, although particular attributes (e.g., their perceived nationality or race) may be assessed as enhancing or reducing their significance as potential victims. Because significance is not only or necessarily a function of power or prominence, children and other noncombatants may be targeted precisely because their destruction is expected to weaken or deter support for the opposition. Symbols, positions, and relationshipsnot peopleare the real targets of assassination.

Although agreeing that assassination is politically motivated killing, Ben-Yehuda emphasizes the need to distinguish between assassination and terrorism. His view is that assassination is defined by the targeting of specific individuals, while terrorism is (as suggested above) indiscriminate killing aimed at a general targeta collectivity or population. As he recognizes, and as illustrated by several of the cases he analyzes, it is difficult to maintain the distinction. Attempted or successful assassinations of particular actors may harm others in addition to or instead of the intended targets. Nontargeted others may be deliberately harmed because they are trying to protect or assist the target, or because they are potential witnesses. Companions or bystanders may be mistakenly or inadvertently harmed. And mistakes may occur, as when an agent dispatched by the Israeli Mossad misidentified and killed an innocent Arab in Lillehamer, Norway. Finally, the number of targets or victims of assassination may vary from one to manywhich suggests that there may be a point at which the number becomes so great that the line between specific and general targeting is impossible to draw. In sum, the distinction between assassination and terrorism is at best tactical or analytical, not one dictated by empirical observations.

Thus, the most realistic definition of assassination is that it is politically motivated killing in which victims are selected because of the expected political impact of their dying. The victims of assassination are generally assumed to be few and to be individually targeted. When there are many victims, who appear to have been randomly selected by the circumstances of their being in "the wrong place at the wrong time," the event is more likely to be defined as terrorism than as assassination.

Assassination and the law

The legal status of assassination is ambiguous in both domestic and international law. Killing or endangering the sovereign, members of the royal family, or chief representatives of the sovereign has always been abhorrent in English common law, and was formally defined as treason in the fourteenth century ("Treason Act," 25 Edw. 3, stat. 5, c. 2 (1351) (England)). The concept of treason has since been extended beyond personal fealty to include violence against the constitutional system by anyone having a duty of allegiance. The law of treason has, however, rarely been invoked (Law Commission). Indeed, the English legal system has been characterized by its nonrecognition of political offenses as such. Political motivation has been accorded scant consideration as even a mitigating factor, in contrast to the tradition established in continental legal systems. There is no recognized political defense in English law. Thus, assassination as a form of treason is extremely circumscribed, and most assassinations are treated as common law crimes without political import.

The United States, Canada, and some other nations formerly British-ruled follow the English model on this question. In the United States, Congress reacted in 1963 to President John F. Kennedy's assassination by making it a federal offense punishable by death or life imprisonment to assassinate the president, president-elect, vice president, vice president-elect, or anyone legally acting as president (18 U.S.C. section 1751 (1976)). Subsequently, it was also made a federal offense to assassinate an incumbent or elected member of Congress. To war against the United States or to assist its enemies constitutes treason; and it is an offense to advocate the forcible or violent overthrow of the federal or any state government, or the assassination of any officer of such governments (18 U.S.C. sections 2381, 2385 (1976)). Otherwise, assassination is a common crime to be dealt with by the state or other government in whose jurisdiction it occurs.

Even though a common crime, the killing of officialsespecially police officers and federal agentshas been dealt with increasingly as a special offense meriting more stringent penalties; and any killings or attacks by antigovernment militants receive special attention under laws such as the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statutes. Conviction in such cases typically results in significantly more severe sentencing (Smith). In effect, such homicides are perceived and treated as politically inspiredthat is, as assassinations.

Until the nineteenth century the European monarchs generally agreed that regicide was intolerable, and considered the offender against government the most despicable of criminals. In 1833, Belgium initiated the doctrine that political offenders were not to be extradited. Most other nations followed suit, but the ensuing treaties typically required extradition of assassins and other violent offenders as common criminals unless their acts occurred in the course of a political disturbance or were "proportionate"that is, not excessive in view of the aims and circumstances of the act (Kittrie). Beginning with the reaction against late nineteenth-century anarchist violence, the political defense of assassination and other political violence has been increasingly unlikely to prevent extradition. In particular, war crimes and crimes against humanity are widely considered to be extraditable offenses. However, there have been many exceptional cases; and the international community remains sharply divided on how to define and deal with terrorist killings and other politically motivated violence.

The legal situation is, then, that assassination may be defined domestically as treason, an "allied offense," or a common crime. Under international law, it may be defined as a nonextraditable political offense (albeit "complex" rather than "pure"), as an extraditable common crime, or as a crime against humanity or against the laws of war. In both domestic and international law, the legal status of any particular assassination depends on the political concerns and relative power of the various authorities and of any private parties involved in or interested in its occurrence.

Causes and patterns

How one approaches the problem of explaining assassination depends on one's assumptions about political violence. If violence for political reasons is considered to be unusual and unjustifiable, the causes of assassination are expected to lie in the psychopathology of individual killers. If political violence is thought to be aberrant but sometimes justifiable, or at least under-standable, causes are sought in threatening or oppressive social conditions, which in principle can be changed so as to eliminate the violence. If violence is seen as an intrinsic dimension and a common instrument of politics, causes are to be found in the varying fortunes and tactics of social groups attempting to defend or increase their life chances. A developed scientific theory of assassination presumably would avoid moral assumptions about political violence and would encompass all three causal sources, treating them as sets of variables whose interrelationships result in an increasing or decreasing probability of assassination events. No such theory yet exists. Toward that goal, the following hypotheses are to be considered: (1) The more threatening or oppressive social conditions are for a particular group the more likely the group is to resort to assassination and other forms of violence; (2) individuals with certain psychopathologic characteristics are more likely to be selected for the actual work of killing; alternatively, those selected develop psychopathological characteristics because of the guilt, isolation, fear, suffering, or other experiences associated with their "dirty work."

Oppression, threat, and assassination. Research on the social causes of assassination indicates that oppression is probably less important than threat in affecting the probability of assassination. Gross has defined oppression as "acts of physical brutality, including killing and limitation of freedom, humiliation of persons, economic exploitation, deprivation of elementary economic opportunities, confiscation of property" (p. 86). He suggests that even foreign domination causes assassination only if it is perceived as oppression, if a political party exists with "an ideology and tactics of direct action," and if there are "activist personality types" ready to use violence (p. 89). Ethnic and nationalist conflicts appear to be far more important factors than socioeconomic conditions in encouraging assassination and other political violence. Political violence tends to be the work of higher-class visionaries and activists, in contrast to the lower-class predatory types who engaged in "common criminal violence" (p. 93).

The most systematic available evidence concerning the linkage between socioeconomic conditions and assassination is found in a cross-national comparative study for the United States National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (Kirkham et al.). Assassination is associated with political instability, which in turn reflects such factors as a low level of socioeconomic development, a high level of relative deprivation, and a high rate of socioeconomic change. Other contributing factors are a government neither very coercive nor very permissive, and high levels of externalized aggression and hostility toward foreigners, among minority and majority groups, and among individuals, as indicated by high homicide and low suicide rates. The United States is exceptional in combining an advanced level of socioeconomic development with the other features. It is noted that African Americans and other major sectors of the population do generally live under conditions internally approximating those found to be associated with relatively high levels of political violence. The findings suggest that socioeconomic conditions must interact with political and cultural factors to become significant in causing assassination and other political violence.

It appears that oppression becomes causally relevant only when it is interpreted as threat, whereas perceived threat in itself is sufficient to encourage political violence. One major implication of this general proposition is that economic conditions must become political factors to affect the level of political violence. A further implication is that political conditions must be interpreted as threatening in order to be causally significant. The process of interpretation is, then, the key to creating situations in which the probability of assassination and other political violence is significantly increased.

Threats may be real whether or not perceived. For a group to have fewer resources while another has more implies a present or potential threat to the life chances of the disadvantaged. The greater the differences, the greater the likelihood that the more advantaged group is living in part at the expense of the less advantaged (assuming they are bound together economically and politically in a real, if not necessarily formal, sense). Certainly, the less advantaged live more precariously and are more vulnerable to life's miseries. For them, it is not difficult to see or believe that inequality is threatening. At the same time, the more advantaged will readily see or believe that underclass discontent or gains are threatening. At any given moment, the available resources are finite; the pie cannot be shared without someone having less if another is to have more. Both sides are likely to feel threatened by changeparticularly by high rates of socioeconomic changebecause it is difficult to predict just who will win and who will lose in the course of events.

The perceived threat posed by existing or changing economic or political conditions does not of itself necessarily produce violence. What is required is that an enemy be identified and that potential assailants be mobilized. Historically, this last step has been accomplished by a campaign of vilification of visible members of a targeted group (government, party, class, religion, nationality, race, or ethnic category), as well as of the group as a whole (Gross; Kirkham et al.). Responsibility for the threatening economic or political conditions is placed squarely on the targeted individuals and groups, who are depicted as entirely reprehensible, irredeemably monstrous, and perhaps even subhuman.

Unchecked, vilification produces a climate of extremism because the targets of the campaign tend to respond in kind. In such a climate, some individuals experienced in using violence may be deliberately recruited as assassins (hired killers ). Others ( political actors ) may progress in stages of activism from minimal political involvement to the conclusion that assassination is tactically essential. Still others (expressive reactors ) may simply be caught up in the excitement of political conflict, finding in the rhetoric of vilification a means and focus for expressing their discontent, perhaps in assassination. Although individual cases exhibit some overlap and movement among them, these typeshired killers, political actors, and expressive reactorsmust be analytically distinguished if the psychology of assassins is to be explored fruitfully.

The psychology of assassins. Psychological profiles of assassins are derived from limited and unrepresentative samples biased in several ways. First, assassins who attack governmental and other institutional figures have been studied, rather than assassins acting on behalf of such figures. Second, assassins of chief executives and other prominent individuals have been studied, to the virtual exclusion of those who kill minor officials and ordinary people. Third, only assassins who have been caught have been studied, so that almost nothing is known about those who are deterred or who escape detection and capture. Fourth, analysis has focused on expressive reactors, with little or no attention having been given to hired killers and political actors. Fifth, the presumption of psychopathology has been strong in both the selection of subjects for study, usually by psychiatrists, and in the analysts' common tendency to see political (and other) violence as intrinsically abnormal and irrational. Finally, the possibility of organized, tactical assassination has tended to be dismissed in favor of an image of the assassin as typically a loner without coherent political motivation and unable to act in concert with others to further political aims.

Research on assassins and assailants of American presidents has found nearly all to be "mentally disturbed persons who did not kill to advance any rational political plan" (Kirkham et al., p. 62). Douglas and Olshaker argue that political intent or consequences are incidental, emphasizing instead the paranoid loser "assassin personality" (p. 219) as merely another type of murderer (delusional but not hallucinatory) essentially akin to senseless killers such as serial and spree murderers.

Ellis and Gullo found assassins other than "paid gunmen" and political agents to have long histories of psychological disturbance, to have experienced a life crisis shortly before the assassination, and to kill without aim or sense "as far as their political beliefs and aspirations are concerned" (pp. 190250).

Harris has suggested that to understand assassins one must look beyond psychopathology to the more normal psychology of the "rebellious-rivalrous personality," a type who "finds authority and restrictions irksome and strives for a redistribution of hierarchical status by competing with the successful lime-lighted rival" (pp. 199200). Similarly, after pointing out the narrow subjectivity of psychiatric evaluations of assassins, Clarke argues for a classification based on social contextual as well as situational and diagnostic evidence. He identifies four types of assassins, as well as a residual of "atypicals." His Type I, whose "extremism is rational, selfless, principled, and without perversity," appears to be equivalent to political actors. Types II (neurotics) and IV (psychotics) are analogous to emotional reactors, and Type III (psychopaths, sociopaths) is perhaps analogous to hired killers (pp. 1317).

Though recognizing the quite limited explanatory power of psychopathology, Robins and Post nevertheless invoke the concept of a "paranoid style" in trying to explain why many people who are not clinically psychopathological may share a belief that their government or other forces are threatening their physical or cultural well-being. Applying such a label to social movements and organizations merely reinforces the assumption that there must be "something wrong" with people whose experiences and beliefs differ significantly from those of the observer, and whose perceptions of threat may not be entirely unwarranted.

From the limited evidence available, it may be concluded that the hypothesis of prior psychopathology is supported for expressive reactors and may have some relevance for explaining hired killers. However, these constitute only a minority of assassins, most of whom are clearly motivated by political concerns based on religious, nationalist, racial-ethnic, and other widely shared ideologies.

The impact of assassination

The impact of assassination varies according to the political milieu. Assassination undermines democratic institutions insofar as it deters able persons from seeking positions of leadership, reduces the public's sense of security, or leads to repression and vigilantism. In more totalitarian systems it encourages opportunism and autocracy, inhibits creative effort and cooperation, and therefore probably reduces the capacity for adapting to environmental and internal changes. Where economic and political instability are endemic, as in much of the developing world, assassination makes it even less likely that able leaders will emerge or have time enough to act effectively. In short, where political order is lacking, assassination helps to prevent its achievement; where it is established, assassination contributes to its erosion or ossification.

Assassination is most likely to be an effective tactic when the goal is a limited one (e.g., retaliation, discipline, elimination of a rival) and when it has organizational support (Ben-Yehuda). It is least likely to occur or affect political life when most people are content and when peaceful mechanisms for transferring power have been established. But insofar as political conflicts spill over or transcend national boundaries, "imported" assassinations may occurparticularly in more open societies such as the Western democracies. And finally, the globalization of conflicts facilitated by technological developments and driven by religio-political ideologies of cosmological struggle ( Juergensmeyer) portends more assassination events irrespective of local conditions.

Austin T. Turk

See also Homicide: Behavioral Aspects; Homicide: Legal Aspects; Terrorism; Violence.


Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. Political Assassinations by Jews. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Clarke, James W. American Assassins: The Darker Side of Politics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Douglas, John, and Olshaker, Mark. The Anatomy of Motive. New York: Scribners, 1999.

Ellis, Albert, and Gullo, John M. Murder and Assassination. New York: Lyle Stuart, 1971.

Franzius, Enno. History of the Order of Assassins. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969.

Gross, Feliks. Violence in Politics: Terror and Political Assassination in Eastern Europe and Russia. Hague: Mouton, 1972.

Harris, Irving D. "Assassins." In Violence: Perspectives on Murder and Aggression. Edited by Irwin L. Kutash, Samuel B. Kutash, Louis B. Schesinger, and others. Foreword by Alexander Wolf. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1978. Pages 198218.

Havens, Murray Clark; Leiden, Carl; and Schmitt, Karl M. The Politics of Assassination. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Kirkham, James F.; Levy, Sheldon G.; and Crotty, William J. Assassination and Political Violence: A Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. Reprint, with an introduction by Harrison E. Salisbury. New York: Bantam Books, 1970.

Kittrie, Nicholas N. "A New Look at Political Offenses and Terrorism." In International Terrorism in the Contemporary World. Edited by Marius H. Livingston, with Lee Bruce Kress and Marie G. Wanek. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978. Pages 354375.

Law Commission. Codification of the Criminal Law: Treason, Sedition, and Allied Offenses. Working Paper No. 72. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1977.

Robins, Robert S., and Post, Jerrold M. Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

Smith, Brent L. Terrorism in America: Pipe Bombs and Pipe Dreams. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1994.


views updated May 21 2018



Assassination is a sudden, usually unexpected act of murder committed for impersonal reasons, typically with a political or military leader as its target. Although assassination gained its name from that of a fanatical Near Eastern sect in the Middle Ages, the practice of assassination goes back to ancient times, and extends to the present day. At one time, the most widely used tool for assassination was a knife or dagger, whereas modern assassinations more often use guns or bombs, while poisons have long been a means of political killing.

Assassination in History

The first significant assassination victim was probably the Egyptian pharaoh Amenemhet I, who established the Twelfth Egyptian Dynasty in 1986 b.c. Amenemhet gained his power by an act of usurpation, thus perhaps setting an example for a group of courtiers who conspired in his killing. Six centuries later, Horemhab, a general who competed with the grand vizier Aya for the hand of Tutankhamen's widow (and hence for the political legitimacy to be gained by marrying a queen), was likewise a victim of assassinationin this case, by his rival.

The list of assassination victims in ancient times is far too long to recount in detail. Roman history alone is studded with acts of murder. Long before and after the most famous assassination in Rome's historythat of Julius Caesar in 44 b.c.the dagger proved a far more common instrument of political change than the ballot. The assassination of Domitian in a.d. 96, and that of Commodus in 192, serve as virtual bookends to the golden age of the empire, after which the western portion fell into a slow, but steady decline. During the half-century that began in 235, no fewer than 20 men held and lost the seat of Roman power, more often than not at the hands of assassins.

Assassination plots, or rumors of them, have sometimes had the effect of neutralizing a ruler indirectly. Some of the greatest and most despicable men of ancient timesHannibal on the one hand, and Nero on the otherkilled themselves rather than let assassins do the job. And Chandragupta, founder of the Mauryan empire of India in the third century, feared assassination so much that in 301 he left his throne, joined the Jain sect, and later died of starvation.

On the other hand, rulers secure in their power usually dealt severely with would-be assassins. Such is the case with the ruthless Prince Cheng of China's Ch'in state during the third century b.c. Many people wanted the tyrant Cheng dead, and the crown prince of the rival Yan kingdom set in motion assassination plans. It was a mark of the terror Cheng commanded that the king of Yan killed his own crown prince in the hope that it would please the Ch'in ruler. Although history does not record Cheng's response to this favor, the event marks one of those junctures in which assassination could or would have altered history: Cheng went on to unite China, which today

still bears the name of his dynasty, commenced the building of the Great Wall, and established an empire that would continue for more than two thousand years.

The cult of the Assassins. Assassinations continued throughout the Middle Ages in western Europe and the Byzantine empire, as well as in the Muslim caliphates. It was in the Islamic world, in fact, that the first true assassins appeared on the stage. The Crusades created the political framework in which the cult of the Assassins, led by the Iranian Ismaili Hassan-i-Sabah, gained their infamous reputation, but Hassan founded the sect in 1090, a decade before the first crusaders arrived in the Holy Land, and throughout their existence, the Assassins were more apt to target Seljuk Turkish leaders than Christian invaders.

Two centuries later, Marco Polo, known for his tendency to weave fantastic tales, created a legend still believed by many today. According to Marco, Assassin leaders would ensure their men's loyalty by drugging them and taking them to a garden where they could enjoy all manner of earthly delightspleasures which, they were told, would await them in the afterlife if they died on the field of battle. Contemporary Ismaili sources, however, contain no mention of the "Garden of Paradise." On the other hand, it is true that the word assassin comes from hashshash, or "one who chews hashish"a reference to the Assassins' use of the drug.

Hassan was known as the "Old Man of the Mountain," a title that passed to each successive Assassin leader. Operating from a castle in a valley stronghold, the Assassins conducted acts of terrorism and political killing throughout the Muslim world, but particularly in Iran and Iraq. Because the Seljuks happened to be in power at that time, they were the primary target, and all attempts to uproot the Assassins proved fruitless. During the Crusades, Assassins in Syria terrorized both Turks and Christians, but combined attacks by the Mongols and Mamluks in the mid-1200s brought about the end of the sect.

Assassination in modern times. If the roster of ancient and medieval leaders killed by assassins was too lengthy to recount in any detail, such is true many times over where the modern world is concerned. Abraham Lincoln in 1865 became the first American president killed by an assassin's bullet, followed by three others: James A. Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901, and John F. Kennedy in 1963. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan were all targets of unsuccessful assassination attempts.

The roster of political murders in the twentieth century is lengthy. The assassination of Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand in 1914 precipitated World War I, and the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler by his generals 30 years later very nearly ended World War II. Not only Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1948, but Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (no relation) in 1984, and her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, fell victim to assassins' bullets. Leaders on both sides in the Middle East have been killed by assassins: King Abdullah of Jordan in 1951, President Anwar Sadat of Eygpt in 1981, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Interestingly, each of these leaders was killed by extremists on their own political side. On the other hand, extremist leaders are as likely as any to become targets of assassins. Senator Huey Long of Louisiana in the 1930s, and Malcolm X 30 years later, both fell to assassins' bullets. So too did George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party, and Pim Fortuyn, founder of a radical anti-immigrant party that stunned the Dutch electorate by finishing second in the 2002 parliamentary elections.

Targets of assassination are not necessarily national leaders, formal office-holders, or even political leaders. When a Turkish assassin attempted to shoot Pope John Paul II in 1981, it was clearly a political act even though the pope is not a political leader per se. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, both assassinated in 1968, were political leaders, but King held no formal office and Kennedy, although he was a senator and presidential candidate, symbolized a larger cultural atmosphere of optimism and activism. Furthermore, his status as John F. Kennedy's brother added greatly to the symbolic impact of the event.

Assassination by Stealth

Many of the assassinations mentioned in the preceding paragraphs were public acts, committed in crowded areas where the loud crack of a fired gun served as a signal of a murder in progress. Assassination committed by modern security organizations and other government-controlled response teams, however, is of a quite different nature. Indeed, assassination, whether undertaken by governments, nongovernmental organizations, or individuals acting alone, is most effective when performed in stealth.

Such was the case with an act of political murder that occurred at the outset of the modern era, during the French Revolution. As depicted in a famous painting by Jacques-Louis David, the radical leader Jean-Paul Marat was in one of the most vulnerable placeshis bathwhen young Charlotte Corday, a supporter of the opposition Girondists, caught up with him on the night of July 13,1793. Corday entered Marat's private chambers under the pretense of being a journalist there to conduct an interview. More than two centuries later, the Muslim terrorist organization al-Qaeda used exactly the same pretext to gain an audience with Ahmad Shah Massoud. The leader of the rebels in the Northern Alliance, and widely regarded as the most popular opposition figure in Afghanistan, Massoud posed the principal threat to the ruling Taliban, who provided asylum to al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden. Two Arab al-Qaeda operatives, posing as journalists with a camera, met with Massoud in private on September 9, 2001just two days before al-Qaeda launched its infamous terrorist attacks on the United States. As the interview began, their "camera" exploded, killing both Massoud and the two assassins.

SMERSH and Trotsky. An excellent example of stealth assassination undertaken by operatives working for a modern government was the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940. Trotsky had long been a rival of Josef Stalin, who recognized that Trotsky's role in launching the Bolshevik takoever of Russia alongside V. I. Lenin gave him much greater revolutionary legitimacy. Stalin had Trotsky exiled, but still wanted him dead. For more than a decade, agents of SMERSH (SMERrt SHpionam or "Death to Spies"), the KGB assassination team, tracked him.

The individual who finally gained Trotsky's confidence was Ramón Mercader, whom Trotsky granted a private interview. Unbeknownst to Trotsky, however, Mercader had been recruited by SMERSH in Spain during its civil war. Using the cover identity of Jacques Mornard, a French journalist, Mercader had gradually worked his way into Trotsky's inner circle, in part by seducing an American named Sylvia Agelof, who had close connections to the radical leader.

Mercader worked patiently, meeting Trotsky on several occasions before mentioning that he had written a paper on Trotsky's political philosophies, and wished to have the master himself read it. Undoubtedly flattered, Trotsky agreed to meet with him on August 20, 1940. On the appointed day, Mercader arrived bearing the putative manuscriptwhich was actually gibberishalong with the concealed tool necessary for his mission: a 13-inch dagger, a pistol, and an Alpine mountain climber's ice ax. After Trotsky began to read the manuscript and realized that it was only a prop, he looked up at his guest, whereupon Mercader split his skull with the ice ax. Trotsky did not immediately die, and prevented his bodyguards from killing Mercador because "He has a tale to tell." Within 24 hours, Trotsky was dead in a hospital room, and Jacques Mercador was in the custody of police. Mercador maintained his false identity as Mornard throughout his trial, where he claimed that he had killed because he was jealous that Sylvia had an intimate relationship with Trotsky. Sentenced in 1943, Mercador served 17 years in a Mexican prison. After his release, he went first to Prague and then to Moscow, where the Kremlin awarded him the Order of the Soviet Union.

Wrath of God and "Black September." Another instructive example of a government undertaking a careful and calculated plan of assassination is that of Israel in response to the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich. The killing had occurred at the hands of Black September, a terrorist group established by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as a "deniable" action teamin other words, a group that could not be conclusively tied to its sponsors. In seeking to mete out justice to Black September, Israel in turn set up its own deniable counterterrorist unit, known as the Wrath of God.

Between 1972 and 1974, Wrath of God (nicknamed "Israel's long arm") allegedly killed more than a dozen Black September operatives. Wael Zwaiter, for instance, had the misfortune to find himself in a Rome elevator with what turned out to be two Wrath of God agents carrying. 22 caliber pistols. The group killed Mahmoud Hamshari with an explosive device on a telephone in Paris, and claimed Hussein Bashir in Nicosia, Cyprus, with a bomb under his mattress. An explosion also claimed Mohammed Boudia, who, after a night with his girlfriend in her Paris flat, started his automobile, only to discover too late that it had been rigged with a car bomb.

As efficient as the Wrath of God was, it made some mistakes. In Lillehammer, Norway, in 1974, Wrath of God operatives shot a man they believed to be Ali Hassan Salameh, operations chief of Black September. In truth, he was Ahmed Bouchiki, a Moroccan waiter carrying an Algerian passport. Five years later in Beirut, the Wrath of God finally eliminated Salameh with an explosive device. In the meantime, the Lillehammer incident provoked complaints from western European nations vexed at the Israelis for using their cities as hunting grounds, and Israel agreed to shut down the Wrath of God.

CIA. It is a truism of historically alleged assassinations carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and other such organizations in the United States that the only operations of which the citizenry ever learns would be the botched ones. Such is the situation of an agency dedicated to covert action under the aegis of a government with a degree of openness before its politya problem with which SMERSH, for instance, did not have to contend.

The CIA has been publicly embarrassed by revelations of attempts to kill Fidel Castro by a number of fanciful means, such as poisoning his cigar. There have also been allegations that the agency either undertook or supported the assassinations and attempted assassinations of numerous world leaders from Chou En-Lai of China in the 1950s to Saddam Hussein in the 1990s.

These and other revelations, many of which emerged during the 197576 hearings led by Senator Frank Church (D-ID), helped bolster an atmosphere of public suspicion toward the CIA and NSA. From the 1970s onward, popular conspiracy theories emerged among the public that linked the CIA to almost every political slaying around the world, including the assassination of President Kennedy. Conspiracy theories aside, some trained CIA operatives possess extraordinary skill in assassination techniques. Some of those techniques are discussed in a CIA assassination manual, apparently written in the 1950s and released to the public in 1997.



Lentz, Harris M. Assassins and Executions: An Encyclopedia of Political Violence, 18651986. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1988.

McKinley, James. Assassination in America. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

Sifakis, Carl. Encyclopedia of Assassinations. New York: Facts on File, 1991.

Spignesi, Stephen J. In the Crosshairs: Famous Assassinations and Attempts. New York: New Page Books, 2003.


Doyle, Kate, and Peter Kornbluh. CIA and Assassinations: The Guatemala 1954 Documents. George Washington University. <> (January 30, 2003).


Assassination Weapons, Mechanical
Biochemical Assassination Weapons
CIA (United States Central Intelligence Agency)
Soviet Union (USSR), Intelligence and Security


views updated May 29 2018


The term assassin comes from the Arabic word hashashin, the collective word given to the followers of Hasan-e Sabbah, the head of a secret Persian sect of Ismailities in the eleventh century who would intoxicate themselves with hashish before murdering opponents. The word has since come to refer to the premeditated surprise murder of a prominent individual for political ends.

An assassination may be perpetrated by an individual or a group. The act of a lone assassin generally involves jealousy, mental disorder, or a political grudge. The assassination performed by more than one person is usually the result of a social movement or a group plot. Both forms of assassination can have far-reaching consequences.

Major Assassinations in World History

One of the earliest political assassinations in recorded history occurred in Rome on March 15, 44 b.c.e. when members of the Roman aristocracy (led by Gaius Cassius and Marcus Brutus), fearing the power of Julius Caesar, stabbed him to death in the Senate house. Caesar had failed to heed warnings to "Beware the Ides of March," and paid the ultimate price (McConnell 1970).

An assassination is usually performed quickly and involves careful planning. The "Thuggee" cult (from which the word thug is derived), which operated in India for several centuries until the British eliminated it in the mid-nineteenth century, consisted of professional killers who committed ritual stranglings of travelers, not for economic or political reasons, but as a sacrifice to the goddess Kali. One thug named Buhram claimed to have strangled 931 people during his forty years as a Thuggee.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a plethora of assassinations throughout the Western world. Among the most noteworthy were the murders of Jean-Paul Marat and Spencer Perceval. For his role in the French Revolution, Marat was assassinated in his residence with a knife wielded by Charlotte Corday, a twenty-four-year-old French woman, on July 13, 1793. It is uncertain whether she committed the act for patriotic reasons of her own or whether she was acting on orders. On May 11, 1812, John Bellingham entered the lobby of the House of Commons and assassinated the British prime minister, Spencer Perceval, because he refused to heed Bellingham's demand for redress against tsarist Russia.

The victim of the most momentous political assassination of the early twentieth century was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Hapsburgs, slain during a parade in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The assassination helped trigger World War I. The world was shocked once again on October 9, 1934, when King Alexander I, who had assumed a dictatorial role in Yugoslavia in the 1920s in an effort to end quarreling between the Serbs and Croats, was murdered by a professional assassin hired by Croat conspirators led by Ante Pavelich.

Russia experienced two major assassinations in the early twentieth century. Having allegedly saved the life of the son of Tsar Nicholas, Grigori Rasputin (the "Mad Monk") gained favor with the Tsarina and, through careful manipulation, became the virtual leader of Russia. However, his byzantine court intrigues, coupled with pro-German activities, led to his assassination on December 29, 1916, by Prince Youssoupoff, husband of the tsar's niece. Ramon Mercader, an agent of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, assassinated Leon Trotsky, who had co-led the Russian Revolution in 1917, in Mexico on August 21, 1940.

On January 30, 1948, India suffered the loss of Mahatma Gandhi, murdered by Nathuram Godse, a religious fanatic who feared the consequences of the partition that created Pakistan in 1947. The South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem was killed on November 2, 1963, by a Vietnamese tank corps major (whose name was never released) because of his submission to the tyrannical rule of his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu.

Assassinations in U.S. History

The United States experienced a number of major losses to assassins in the twentieth century. Huey Long, an icon in Louisiana politics, was assassinated on September 8, 1935, in the corridor of the capitol building by Carl Weiss, a medical doctor in Baton Rouge and son-in-law of one of Long's many political enemies. Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon, one of the most politically active rock stars of his generation, on December 8, 1980. Attempts were made on other noteworthy men such as George Wallace (May 15, 1972, in Laurel, Maryland) and civil rights leader James Meredith (June 1966 during a march from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi).

The 1960s was an era of unrest in the United States. Civil rights, women's rights, the war in Vietnam, the student movement, and the ecology controversy were major issues. Malcolm X, who advocated black nationalism and armed self-defense as a means of fighting the oppression of African Americans, was murdered on February 21, 1965, by Talmadge Hayer, Norman Butler, and Thomas Johnson, alleged agents of Malcolm's rival Elijah Muhammud of the Nation of Islam. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee by James Earl Ray, who later retracted his confession and claimed to be a dupe in an elaborate conspiracy. Robert F. Kennedy, then representing New York State in the U.S. Senate, was shot by a Palestinian, Sirhan Sirhan, on June 5, 1968, in Los Angeles, shortly after winning the California presidential primary.

Attempted Assassinations of U.S. Presidents

The first attempt to assassinate a sitting president of the United States occurred on January 30, 1835, when Richard Lawrence, an English immigrant, tried to kill President Andrew Jackson on a street in Washington, D.C. Lawrence believed that he was heir to the throne of England and that Jackson stood in his way. He approached the president with a derringer and pulled the trigger at point-blank range. When nothing happened, Lawrence reached in his pocket and pulled out another derringer, which also misfired. Lawrence was tried, judged insane, and sentenced to a mental institution for the rest of his life.

On February 15, 1933, while riding in an open car through the streets of Miami, Florida, with Chicago's mayor, Anton Cermak, President Franklin D. Roosevelt nearly lost his life to Giuseppe (Joseph) Zangara, an unemployed New Jersey mill worker who had traveled to Florida seeking employment. Caught up in the throes of the depression and unable to find work, he blamed capitalism and the president. The assassin fired several shots at the presidential vehicle and fatally wounded Cermak and a young woman in the crowd; Roosevelt was not injured. Zangara was executed in the electric chair, remaining unrepentant to the end.

While the White House was being renovated in 1950, and Harry Truman and his wife were residing in the poorly protected Blair House nearby, two Puerto Rican nationalistsOscar Collazo and Grisello Torresolaplotted Truman's death, believing "that the assassination of President Truman might lead to an American Revolution that would provide the Nationalists with an opportunity to lead Puerto Rico to independence" (Smith 2000, p. 3). On November 1, 1950, the two killers attempted to enter the Blair House and kill the president. Truman was not harmed, but in the gun battle that took place, one security guard was fatally shot and two were injured. Torresola was also killed. Collazo, although wounded, survived to be tried, and he was sentenced to death. Not wishing to make him a martyr, Truman commuted his sentence to life in prison. During his presidency in 1979, Jimmy Carter ordered the release of Collazo, and he died in Puerto Rico in 1994.

While President Ronald Reagan was leaving the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C., on March 30, 1981, he was seriously injured by a .22-caliber bullet fired by twenty-five-year-old John W. Hinckley Jr. After watching the movie Taxi Driver, Hinckley was impressed by Robert DeNiro's role as a man who tries to assassinate a senator. Hinckley also became infatuated with Jodie Foster, a young actress in the film, and decided that the way to impress her was to kill the president. Reagan survived major surgery to repair a collapsed lung, and Hinckley was sentenced to a psychiatric facility.

President Gerald Ford survived two attempts on his life. On September 5, 1975, while in Sacramento, California, Ford was nearly killed by Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a devoted follower of the cult leader Charles Manson. Fromme believed that killing Ford would bring attention to the plight of the California redwood trees and other causes she supported. Fromme was three to four feet from the President and about to fire a .45-caliber handgun when she was thwarted by Secret Service agents. Seventeen days later, in San Francisco, Sara Jane Moore, a civil rights activist, attempted to take the president's life. Moore was a member of a radical group and believed she could prove her allegiance by killing the president. Both women were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Theodore Roosevelt was the only former president to face an assassination attempt. In 1912, after serving two terms as president, Roosevelt decided to seek a third term at the head of the Bull Moose Party. The idea of a third-term president was disturbing to many because no president theretofore had ever served more than two consecutive terms. A German immigrant, John Shrank, decided that the only way to settle the issue was to kill Roosevelt. On October 14, 1912, at a political rally, Shrank fired a bullet that went through fifty pages of speech notes, a glasses case made of steel, and Roosevelt's chest, penetrating a lung. Covered with blood, Roosevelt completed his speech before being treated. Shrank was adjudicated as mentally ill and spent the rest of his life in a mental institution.

Assassinations of U.S. Presidents

The first president to be assassinated was Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Believing that he could avenge the loss of the South in the U.S. Civil War, the actor John Wilkes Booth entered the President's box at the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C., where Lincoln had gone with friends and family to see a play. Booth fired a bullet into the back of the President's head and then leaped from the stage shouting, "sic semper tyrannis!" and "The South is avenged!" Despite fracturing his shinbone, he successfully escaped. Twelve days later, Booth was trapped in a Virginia barn and killed when he refused to surrender. The coconspirators in the murder were hanged.

James A. Garfield was shot once in the arm and once in the back on July 1, 1881, in a Baltimore and Potomac train station on his way to deliver a speech in Massachusetts. Charles Guiteau, the assassin, had supported the president's candidacy and erroneously believed that he had earned a political appointment in Garfield's administration. When he was rejected, the killer blamed the president. Garfield survived for seventy-nine days before succumbing to his wound. Guiteau was hanged on June 30, 1882, at the District of Columbia jail.

In September 1901 President William McKinley traveled to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, to give a speech on American economic prosperity. While greeting an assembled crowd on September 6, he encountered twentyeight-year-old Leon Czolgosz, a laborer and self-professed anarchist. The assassin approached McKinley with a handkerchief wrapped around his wrist, and when the President reached to shake his hand, Czolgosz produced a .32-caliber pistol and fired two shots into the chief executive's abdomen. McKinley died eight days later from gangrene that developed because of inadequate medical treatment. Czolgosz was executed, exclaiming that he was "not sorry" (Nash 1973, p. 143).

On November 22, 1963, while traveling in a motorcade through the streets of Dallas, Texas, John F. Kennedy became the fourth U.S. president to be assassinated. Lee Harvey Oswald, a communist malcontent, was accused of the crime and all evidence pointed to his guilt. However, before he could be adjudicated, Jack Ruby, a Texas nightclub owner, killed Oswald. Oswald's motivation for killing Kennedy has never been fully determined: "The only conclusion reached was that he acted alone and for vague political reasons" (Nash 1973, p. 430). Conspiracy theories concerning the murder have not been substantiated.

See also: Death System; Homicide, Definitions and Classifications of; Homicide, Epidemiology of; Revolutionaries and "Death for the Cause!"; Terrorism


Bak, Richard. The Day Lincoln was Shot: An Illustrated Chronicle. Dallas, TX: Taylor, 1998.

Barkan, Steven E. Criminology: A Sociological Understanding. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

Bruce, George. The Stranglers: The Cult of Thuggee and Its Overthrow in British India. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.

Bresler, Fenton. Who Killed John Lennon? New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Cavendish, Marshall. Assassinations: The Murders That Changed History. London: Marshall Cavendish, 1975.

Gardner, Joseph L. Departing Glory: Theodore Roosevelt as Ex-President. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973.

Lesberg, Sandy. Assassination in Our Time. New York: Peebles Press International, 1976.

McConnell, Brian. The History of Assassination. Nashville: Aurora, 1970.

McKinley, James. Assassinations in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

Nash, Jay Robert. Bloodletters and Badmen. New York: M. Evans and Co., 1973.

Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy, 18331845. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.

Roy, Parama. "Discovering India, Imagining Thuggee." The Yale Journal of Criticism 9 (1996):121143.

Strober, Deborah H., and Gergald S. Strober. Reagan: The Man and His Presidency. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Internet Resources

"The Assassination of Huey Long." In the Louisiana Almanac [web site]. Available from

Smith, Elbert B. "Shoot Out on Pennsylvania Avenue." In the HistoryNet at [web site]. Available from



views updated May 18 2018


Assassination is commonly defined as "political murder." While it is not necessary that the victim of an assassination be a political leader, assassinations are generally killings that target specific individuals for a political purpose, and are often accomplished by means of surprise or treachery. When ordered by a state against leaders of a foreign state, assassinations generally violate international law.

The word assassination first appeared in English in the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare. However, the root of the word, assassin, is much older. It originally comes from the Arabic word hashshashin, which means "eaters of hashish." This Arabic meaning derives from a certain Islamic sect whose members were known for murdering their political opponents after ingesting the drug hashish.

International law distinguishes between state-sponsored assassination and assassination that is not state-sponsored. When an assassination is committed by a group that is not affiliated with a government or by an individual acting alone, it is not state-sponsored. There have been many well-known assassinations of this type throughout history. For example, the Roman general and statesman Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of conspirators in the Roman Senate in 44 bce. The American Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were also assassinated by individuals who were not acting on behalf of any state, as was the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, whose killer was an escaped convict. Another example of this type of assassination is the murder of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, who was assassinated by Islamic extremists in his own army, while he was reviewing a military parade in 1981.

Assassinations that are not sponsored by states are usually treated as murders in the countries where they occur. Because no state is responsible, they usually do not violate international law. Except in the case of international criminal law, only states can be held responsible for violating international law.

State-Sponsored Assassination

Under most circumstances, international law prohibits state-sponsored assassination. The United Nations Charter prohibits the aggressive use of force by one state against another. The Charter also prohibits interfering in the territory or affairs of another state. Chapter I of the Charter requires that all states must "settle their international disputes by peaceful means" and must "refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force". When a state sponsors the assassination of the leader of another state, it violates this basic rule of international law.

However, there are two important exceptions to this rule. First, state-sponsored "targeted killings" may sometimes be legal during times of war. Under the law of war, two states that are at war with each other may kill soldiers in the opposing army. The killing of enemy soldiers is not considered illegal assassination because during a war soldiers are said to have a legal "privilege" to kill their enemies. This privilege extends to military leaders, who are often considered fair game as "command-and-control" targets. In some cases, government officials may be fair targets if they are part of the military chain of command.

However, even during times of war a "targeted killing" can only be legal if it does not violate the law of war. A state that uses "treachery" to kill an enemy may be guilty of war crimes. Article 23 of the Hague Convention IV of 1907 provides that "it is especially forbidden . . . to kill or wound treacherously, individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army." Treachery is usually defined as a breach of confidence, such as an attack on an individual who believes that there is no need to fear the attacker. Examples of treachery include attacking while pretending to seek a truce or surrender, attacking while pretending to be injured or sick, or attacking while pretending to be a non-combatant civilian. However, the mere act of surprising an enemy or failing to meet the enemy face-to-face is not enough to constitute treachery. Treacherous assassinations are illegal under the law of war.

The second exception to the general prohibition against state-sponsored assassination is the exception for self-defense. Article 51 of the United Nations Charter grants states an "inherent right" to self-defense if an armed attack against them occurs. If assassination is used as self-defense it may be legal under international law. The self-defense exception does not require that the state be at war, but the assassination must meet the definition of a legitimate act of self-defense.

There are three main requirements for a legitimate act of self-defense. First, self-defense may only be used when the threat of aggression is imminent. This means that defensive force may only be used to defend against an act of aggression that is occurring or is about to occur. Second, force must be necessary in order to defend against the aggression. If there is any other way to defend against the threat, such as a diplomatic solution, it must be used first. Third, the defensive response must be proportionate to the threatened aggression. A state may not use more force than necessary to defend against the threat. Any extra force would be considered an illegal reprisal, and not a legal act of self-defense. Under these criteria, an assassination must be designed to defend against an immediate threat of aggression to be considered a legitimate form of self-defense. The assassination must be the only way to defend against the aggression. Furthermore, the assassination may not be used for reprisals against an attack that has already occurred.

Scholars have debated whether the right to self-defense permits the use of assassination to prevent or deter future attacks. This is generally called "anticipatory self-defense." The more restrictive view is that assassination can only be legal when used to defend against a specific attack that is occurring or is about to occur. Others argue that terrorism and weapons of mass destruction have created a new environment, in which states must be allowed to defend themselves by any means necessary, even before an attack has begun. Israel has frequently used assassination as a kind of anticipatory self-defense. In 1988 its agents killed Abu Jihad, the head of military strategy for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In 1992 an Israeli helicopter gunship killed Sheik Abbas Musawi, the leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement. In 2004 an Israeli missile killed the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Israel has argued that these killings are necessary to prevent future terrorist attacks, but many international observers view them as reprisals for past acts and, therefore, as illegitimate forms of self-defense.

U.S. Law on State-Sponsored Assassination

The U.S. position on assassination has changed over time. As of the early twenty-first century, U.S. law prohibited the use of assassination. However, although assassination has been prohibited by the U.S. army as a technique of warfare since the Civil War, there have been periods where assassination has been used as an instrument of foreign policy. For example, during the cold war the CIA attempted to assassinate a number of foreign leaders who were thought to be sympathetic to communism. These assassination plots were made public in 1975. A congressional committee lead by Senator Frank Church found that successive U.S. presidents had authorized plans to assassinate five foreign leaders during the 1960s and early 1970s. The targeted leaders included Chilean President Salvador Allende and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, against whom eight unsuccessful assassination plots were authorized.


Returning from his morning prayers at a mosque in Gaza City on March 22, 2004, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the sixty-seven-year-old founder and "spiritual leader" of Hamas, was killed when a missile was fired by an Israeli helicopter.

Hamas is a loosely structured organization formed in 1987 that has used violent and political means to pursue the goal of replacing Israel with an Islamic Palestinian state. The organization had claimed responsibility for a wave of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians and was considered a terrorist organization by the United States.

The killing was viewed as an assassination that violated international law by much of the international community. Algeria introduced a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have condemned the killing as an "extrajudicial execution." However, the United States vetoed the resolution after Algeria refused to include language condemning previous acts of violence by Hamas.

The Church Committee made clear its disapproval of these tactics and concluded that: "short of war, assassination is incompatible with American principles, international order, and morality. It should be rejected as a tool of foreign policy." The Committee recommended that Congress pass a law to make assassination illegal. Congress, however, has never passed such a law. Instead, U.S. policy on assassination has been governed by a series of Executive Orders, beginning in 1976. These orders have prohibited employees of the United States from engaging in assassination during peacetime, but have not defined the exact meaning of assassination. The absence of a precise definition has given U.S. Presidents leeway to order missions that some observers have viewed as assassination attempts.

For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. launched several military attacks that were most likely designed to kill specific individuals. In 1986, the Reagan administration launched air strikes against Libya and targeted the army barracks where Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was known to be sleeping. In 1998, in retaliation for the al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa, the Clinton administration launched cruise missiles against a training camp in Afghanistan with the hope of killing Osama bin Laden.

International Criminal Responsibility

Assassination is generally considered a violation of the international law against treachery in war or aggression in times of peace. In addition, it is possible, although less likely, that individuals or groups of individuals accused of assassination could be held accountable for committing genocide or crimes against humanity.

An assassination could rise to the level of a crime against humanity only if it was part of a systematic or widespread pattern of attacks against a civilian population. There would have to be a pattern of "extra-judicial killing" of civilians, of which the assassination formed one part. In general, assassinations do not fit this definition because they often occur as single isolated events and involve treachery, often against quasi-military targets, rather than systematic or widespread attacks against civilians.

An assassination could constitute genocide only if the killing was committed with the intention of destroying a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group in part or as a whole. Because assassinations generally target specific individuals for political purposes, they would not often meet this requirement. However, if an assassination that targeted a particular individual was a part of a broader plan to destroy the individual's entire group, it could be viewed as part of a genocide. This might have been the case during the early stages of the Rwandan genocide, when groups of Hutu used written lists to search out and murder specific Tutsi political leaders.

SEE ALSO Crimes Against Humanity; War Crimes


Anderson, Chris A. (1992). "Assassination, Lawful Homicide, and the Butcher of Baghdad." Journal of Public Law and Policy 13:291.

Beres, Louis R. (1992). "The Permissibility of State Sponsored Assassination during Peace and War." Temple International and Comparative Law Journal 5: 231.

Ford, Franklin, L. (1985). Political Murder: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Godfrey, Brenda L. (2003). "Authorization to Kill Terrorist Leaders and Those Who Harbor Them: International Analysis of Defensive Assassination." San Diego International Law Journal 4:491.

Heaps, Willard A. (1969). Assassination: A Special Kind of Murder. New York: Meredith Press.

Pickard, Daniel B. (2001). "Legalizing Assassination? Terrorism, the Central Intelligence Agency, and International Law." Georgia Journal International and Comparative Law 30:1.

Raines, Joshua (2002). "Osama, Augustine, and Assassination: The Just War Doctrine and Targetted Killings." Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems 12:217.

Schmitt, Michael N. (1992). "State-Sponsored Assassination in International and Domestic Law." Yale Journal of International Law 17:609.

Wiebe, Mathew C. (2003). "Assassination in Domestic and International Law: The Central Intelligence Agency, State-Sponsored Terrorism, and the Right of Self-Defense." Tulsa Journal of Comparative and International Law 11:363.

Wingfield, Thomas C. (1989). "Taking Aim at Regime Elites: Assassination, Tyrannicide, and the Clancy Doctrine." Maryland Journal of International Law and Trade 22:287.

Zengel, Patricia (1992). "Assassination and the Law of Armed Conflict." Mercer Law Revue 43:615.

Brian K. Morgan


views updated Jun 11 2018


ASSASSINATION. Assassination, according to Franklin L. Ford, "is the intentional killing of a specified victim or group of victims, perpetrated for a reason related to his (her, their) public prominence and undertaken with a political purpose in view." It is usually an answer to an alleged political crime, the latter being generally defined as an offense by which the criminal betrays his allegiance to principles or persons that bind the political order, or by which the criminal challenges or hinders the political authority.

Early modern societies were predominantly Christian, thus it might seem strange to find so many instances of assassination during that time. After all, murder is prohibited under divine, and humane, law. But there were religious motives behind many of these killings. Assassinations were partly justified by arguments taken from the Old Testament, in which many kings accused of tyranny were killed: Eglon, Absalom, Joram, Holophernes, to name a few. Works of famous Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, and medieval theologians, such as John of Salisbury or Thomas Aquinas, were also used to vindicate political murders.

It would be an exaggeration to say that every assassination that occurred during 14501789 was religiously motivated. For instance, in 1483 in the last stages of the War of the Roses, Richard Duke of Gloucester murdered the twelve-year-old Edward V and his younger brother and was himself crowned Richard III. In 1762, Tsar Peter III was killed, which allowed his wife Catherine to come to power. But more often than not, from 1500 to 1650, when the mortality rate among political leaders was very high, religion played a central role in the events.

During the era of religious wars, many theorists from both sides alleged that a prince who embraced a false religion forfeited his subjects' allegiance. According to the radical George Buchanan, when war was declared between a ruler and his people in such a manner, everybody has the right to kill the enemy. Early in the fifteenth century, the French theologian Jean Petit said that it was "lawful for any subject, without any order or command, according to moral, divine, and natural law, to kill or cause to be killed a traitor and disloyal tyrant." Catholicsone of them a monkstabbed to death two French kings, Henry III in 1589 and Henry IV in 1610, because they thought the kings were secretly working for the victory of the Protestant cause. In 1634, sectarian hatreds also played a role in the assassination of Albrecht von Wallenstein, a Protestant turned Catholic who had become the supreme commander of the imperial forces during the Thirty Years' War (16181648). His reluctance to implement religious measures designed to strengthen the grip of Catholicism in Germany created some suspicions. Convinced of his treason, the emperor Ferdinand II ordered that he be caught dead or alive. On the night of 25 February 1634, von Wallenstein was stabbed to death, along with his closest collaborators.

The early modern political scene was therefore quite violent, especially in comparison to the medieval period, when Christians made every effort to control political violence. Religion was no longer used to forbid assassination. On the contrary, it became an excuse to murder. Popes celebrated the deaths of Protestant princes such as William the Silent, who was killed in 1584 in Holland. Jesuit theologians such as Juan de Mariana and Francisco Suárez wrote texts in which they defended tyrannicide. Protestant leaders like John Calvin and Elizabeth I also resorted to violence when they wanted to be rid of an enemy. The years 15001650 witnessed a great number of civil wars. The end of these wars and the consolidation of states meant that, generally speaking, Damocles' swords were no longer lingering over the princes' head. This quiet came to an end with the revolutionary era of the 1790s.

See also Crime and Punishment ; Monarchy ; Revolutions, Age of ; Violence ; Wallenstein, A. W. E. von.


Ford, F. L. Political Murder: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism. Cambridge, Mass., 1985.

Minois, G. Le couteau et le poison: L'assassinat politique en Europe (14001800). Paris, 1997.

Mousnier, R. The Assassination of Henry IV. London, 1973.

Michel De Waele


views updated May 14 2018


Murder committed by a perpetrator without the personal provocation of the victim, who is usually a government official.

First used in medieval times to describe the murders of prominent Christians by the Hashshashin, a secret Islamic sect, the word assassination is used in the twenty-first century to describe murders committed for political reasons, especially against government officials. Assassination may be used as a political weapon by a state as well as by an individual; it may be directed at the establishment or used by it.

The term assassination is generally applied only to political murders—in the United States, most commonly to attempts on the life of the president. However, the classification of any one incident as an assassination may be in part a matter of perception. The "assassination" of the outlaw Jesse James, in 1882, provides an example of the difficulties. Thomas T. Crittenden, governor of Missouri, assumed that being seen as responsible for the death of the notorious outlaw would be good for his political career. For this reason, Crittenden granted each of the killers a pardon in addition to a $10,000 reward. But the American public spoke vehemently against James's killers, dubbing them assassins and his death an assassination. Crittenden was vilified by the American people, and his political career was destroyed.

It is not always easy to guess the motivations of those who attempt assassinations or to understand the historical and legal implications of their actions. The anti-constitutional nature of assassination has made it a focal point for conspiracies and conspiracy theories from the beginning. The first attempt at the assassination of a U.S. president was Richard Lawrence's attack on andrew jackson in 1835. Although a jury acquitted Lawrence on the ground of insanity, Jackson was convinced that the attack was part of a whig party conspiracy.

The 1865 assassination of President abraham lincoln by John Wilkes Booth prompted its own set of theories. In a controversial decision, a military tribunal convicted nine people of conspiring in Lincoln's assassination. In the case of one of those hanged for the crime, Mary E. Surratt, all that could be proved was that she owned the rooming house in which the conspirators plotted. Nonetheless, high emotions at the end of the Civil War resulted in her execution. After sentiments cooled and talk of conspiracies calmed, the two surviving conspirators imprisoned for Lincoln's death gained pardons from President andrew johnson.

Even greater controversy was caused when the public was deprived of the opportunity to see Lee Harvey Oswald tried for the assassination, in 1963, of President john f. kennedy. Oswald's death at the hands of jack ruby sparked theories of conspiracy that ranged from Communist plots to Mafia hits to cover-ups by U.S. officials. President lyndon b. johnson appointed a group of national figures, led by Supreme Court Chief Justice earl warren, to investigate the assassination and issue a report. The warren commission concluded that Oswald had acted alone.

Despite this, conspiracy theories remained widespread in books and in films like Oliver Stone's JFK: The Untold Story (released in 1991). In an attempt to calm public suspicions surrounding the Kennedy assassination, the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 (44 U.S.C.A. § 2107) was passed by Congress. The act released much of

the Kennedy assassination material in government files. As of 2003, its effectiveness at stilling concern over a possible conspiracy remained to be seen.

It has become clear that the public demands a thorough investigation of any attempt on a president's life. Because it is a crime to advocate the assassination of any U.S. president, even threats are carefully investigated. In U.S. history, four presidents have lost their lives to assassins: Abraham Lincoln, james garfield, william mckinley, and John F. Kennedy.

Political Assassination by U.S Government Employees

In 1974 the Congress established a committee to investigate possible U.S. involvement in plots to assassinate foreign leaders deemed hostile to U.S. interests. Specifically, the committee investigated the alleged involvement of the central intelligence agency (CIA) in plots to kill Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Fidel Castro of Cuba, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, General Rene Schneider of Chile, and Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. The absence of a written record and the failing memories of principal witnesses prevented the committee from conclusively demonstrating that presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, or Nixon personally authorized the assassination of any foreign leader. However, the evidence did show that between 1960 and 1970, the CIA was involved in several assassination plots.

The committee reported its findings in 1975 to a dismayed Congress. Public outcry was loud and immediate. At the urging of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, President gerald r. ford signed an executive order banning all federal employees from committing assassination as a tool of U.S foreign policy or for any other reason. Exec. Order No. 11905. The order was extended by President ronald reagan 15 years later to also preclude hired assassins.

Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., Congress and the White House have been revisiting the propriety of political assassinations committed by members of the U.S. government. In December 2002, according to a Globe and Mail news story, President george w. bush gave the CIA written authority to kill about two dozen terrorist leaders if capturing them proved to be impractical and civilian casualties could not be minimized. The CIA relied on that authority in using a pilotless Predator aircraft to fire a Hellfire antitank missile at a car in Yemen carrying an al-Qaeda operative. The al-Qaeda operative and five other people died in the attack.

further readings

Allen Chair Symposium 2002. 2003. "Political Assassination as an Instrument of National Policy: An Inquiry into Operations, Expediency, Morality, and Law." Univ. of Richmond Law Review (March).

Donoghue, Mary Agnes. 1975. Assassination: Murder in Politics. Chatsworth, Calif.: Major Books.

Harder, Tyler J. 2002. "Time to Repeal the Assassination Ban of Executive Order 12,333: A Small Step in Clarifying Current Law." Military Law Review 172 (June).

McKinley, James. 1977. Assassination in America. New York: Harper & Row.

Taylor, Stuart, Jr. 1998. "Assassination as Self-defense." New York Law Journal (November 30).


Lincoln, Abraham, "Lincoln Assassination Conspiracy" (In Focus).


views updated May 14 2018


Assassination is a sudden, usually unexpected, act of murder , typically with a political or military leader as its target. The practice of assassination goes back to ancient times, and extends into the present day. Assassinations have occurred throughout history, in places all over the globe. At one time, the most widely used tool for assassination was a knife or dagger. Modern day assassinations more often use guns, bombs, poisons, and biological agents such as toxins .

In the United States, the President has been a frequent target. In 1865 Abraham Lincoln became the first American president killed by an assassin's bullet, followed by James A. Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901, and John F. Kennedy in 1963. Unsuccessful attempts were made on Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan.

The assassination of Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand in 1914 precipitated World War I, and, 30 years later, the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler by his generals very nearly ended World War II. In India, not only Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1948, but Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (no relation) in 1984, and her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, fell victim to assassin's bullets. Leaders in various countries throughout the Middle East have been killed by assassins: King Abdullah of Jordan in 1951, President Anwar Sadat of Eygpt in 1981, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 were all victims of assassination. Interestingly, all of these leaders were killed by extremists on their own political side. On the other hand, extremist leaders are as likely as any to become targets of assassins. Senator Huey Long of Louisiana was assassinated in the 1930s and Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X was killed 30 years later. George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party, and Pim Fortuyn, founder of a Dutch radical anti-immigrant party, were also slain by assassins.

Targets of assassination are not necessarily national leaders, formal office-holders, or even political leaders. When a Turkish assassin attempted to shoot Pope John Paul II in 1981, it was clearly a political act even though the pope was not a political leader per se. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, both assassinated in 1968, were political leaders, but King held no formal office and Kennedy, although he was a senator and presidential candidate, symbolized a larger cultural atmosphere of optimism and activism. Furthermore, his status as John F. Kennedy's brother added greatly to the symbolic impact of the event.

In the aftermath of any assassination, forensic science may be used to try to determine the method of death and to identify those responsible. Forensic science is not concerned with the aims or the political implications of assassinations. Rather, the battery of tests and skills of the forensic investigators are geared toward deducing how the murder was carried out.

Even in an obvious case of an assassination by means of gunshot, a forensic investigation can possibly identify the firearm that was used. Furthermore, ballistics and gunshot residue studies can be used to implicate a suspect.

Forensic identification techniques for poisonous inorganic compounds and biological agents such as bacterial toxins can be valuable in unraveling the nature of assassinations that involve these harder to detect weapons.

see also Assassination weapons, biochemical; Assassination weapons, mechanical; Kennedy assassination; Lincoln exhumation; Ricin; Sarin gas.


views updated May 09 2018

41. Assassination (See also Murder.)

  1. assassins Fanatical Moslem sect that smoked hashish and murdered Crusaders (11th12th centuries). [Islamic Hist.: Brewer Note-Book, 52]
  2. Brutus conspirator and assassin of Julius Caesar. [Br. Lit.: Julius Caesar ]
  3. Caesar, Julius (10244 B.C.) murdered by conspirators. [Br. Lit.: Julius Caesar ]
  4. Gorboduc king killed by the people, who were horrified at his murderous family. [Br. Legend and Lit.: Benét, 410]
  5. Harmodius assassinated Hipparchus, brother of the tyrant Hippias. [Gk. Hist.: EB (1963) XI, 198]
  6. Ides of March Caesar killed by opposing factions (44 B.C.). [Rom. Hist.: EB, 3: 575580]


views updated Jun 27 2018

as·sas·si·nate / əˈsasəˌnāt/ • v. (often be assassinated) murder (an important person) in a surprise attack for political or religious reasons.DERIVATIVES: as·sas·si·na·tion / əˌsasəˈnāshən/ n.


views updated May 17 2018

Assassination ★ 1987 (R)

A serious threat has been made to First Lady Ireland and no one is taking it lightly. Secret Service agent Bronson has been called as Ireland's personal bodyguard and suddenly they are both the target of terrorist attacks. Strangely though, the attacks seem to be directed from inside the White House. Bronson as you've seen him many times before. 93m/C VHS, DVD . Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, Stephen Elliott, Michael Ansara; D: Peter Hunt; W: Richard Sale; C: Hanania Baer.