We live in an age of assassination. While the practice of killing in order to promote political change has always been with us, it has evolved over the centuries into a situation where political murder is now routinely committed by terrorists, overzealous nuts and government agents, often just for the purpose of making a point.
We weren’t always so blasé about it. When Brutus and company stabbed Julius Caesar to death on the Roman Senate floor in 44 BC, philosophers debated for centuries over the merits and ethics of tyranicide. However, in an era when killing is made easier by technology, there is no real debate. One side smugly nods its approval and puts another drone in the air; the other screams in outrage while suiting up a fresh suicide bomber.
Questions of morality are always shoved aside in wartime, but there’s a more practical concern that few seem to have pondered: Is assassination an effective tool to achieve political aims? In other words, does it work?
That’s the main question underlying Lyndsay Porter’s Assassination: A History of Political Murder, and from the evidence Porter presents, the answer is an emphatic “no”. Take the killing of Caesar. His assailants thought ending his life would end his empirical reign and bring a new age of democracy and stability to Rome. Instead, Caesar’s death plunged the republic into a generations-long nightmare of violence and corruption. Or consider the shooting of Abraham Lincoln, whose killer, John Wilkes Booth, hoped his deed would restore honor to the South after its defeat in the Civil War. Booth’s reward? A bullet in the head and Reconstruction, which would keep the South poor and underdeveloped for roughly the next 100 years.
The logic of the act seems simple: kill the head and the body will die. Yet whether perpetrated by lone kooks, G-men or secret cabals, the blowback can be intense and uncontainable. Example after example shows that assassination almost never has the final effect that was intended, yet far from becoming a relic of our barbarian history, policies of assassination have been embraced worldwide, both by the establishment and its various enemies.
It’s a small disappointment that Porter only obliquely addresses today’s situation, preferring to map the historical roads that brought us here rather than try and guess where we may be going. However, with brief, well-written and nicely illustrated chapters detailing famous assassinations in history, Porter thoroughly examines both the ends and means of political murder as it developed throughout history.
It’s not exactly light reading (and nowhere near as much fun as Sarah Vowel’s excellent Assassination Vacation), but the format of the book—hardcover, glossy, almost-but-not-quite coffee table material—invites the reader to peruse rather than plow straight through, a good approach for such a dark subject.
With death threats against politicians surging, Hellfire missiles raining down and fatwas a-flying, the modern world demands a re-examination of assassination, one that acknowledges its inherent worthlessness as a tactic for political change.
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