Human history is rife with dictatorships and totalitarianism. In fact, when seen trough a particular perspective, human history seems to be defined by the struggle between despots and the popular will. While it is very difficult to determine how or why an extraordinarily small minority of the human population is able to rule over the sprawling majority, proving that this is the case is a much easier task. The struggle to gain a political voice is often motivated by moral issues, but is just as often spurred by economic issues. This means that the same elite minority that stands against popular will in terms of social and cultural ideals, also stands against the popular will on economic issues. It is good strategy for any self-interested ruler or despot to deny cultural and economic freedom and opportunity to the masses.
The reason for this is self-evident in that no member of an “elite” class could remain elite in a truly egalitarian society. Since no truly egalitarian society exists, nor has ever existed, the popular will is often expressed through subversive behaviors such as counter-culture and political demonstration. When these avenues of recourse are taken away and the rule of a despot becomes increasingly severe, the populist will toward emancipation often becomes violent and the violent expression against pollical Absolutism sometimes takes the form of political assassination. The act of political assassination is distinct from non-political murder in that political assassination whether merely attempted or actually carried out has as its aim the elimination of a specific person (or persons) in order to achieve a political end.
In the article “”Political Assassination Events as a Cross-Cultural Form of Alternative Justice,” (1997) Nachman Ben-Yehuda offers a well-reasoned and comprehensive definition of political assassination. According to the article, political assassination can be convincingly defined as “the discriminate, deliberate, intentionally planned, and serious attempt(s), […] to kill a specific social actor for political reasons having something to do with the political position (or role) of the victim.”1 This definition is, of course, incomplete in the sense that it makes no judgment regarding the philosophical or ethical implications of political assassination. The question of what kind of moral and ethical impacts and implications are created by political assassinations is a highly fluid and subjective question. In fact the fluidity and ambiguity that is associated with the topic may well be the most defining feature of political assassination. On the one hand it appears not only justifiable but politically expedient, while on the other, the use of political assassination can be shown to impede freedom and justice as well as severely impacting states of war and peace.
Another important thing to keep in mind about political assassination is that is carried out in many cases in flagrant opposition to the rule of law. In fact, the use of political assassination is generally enacted illegally. The basic rule in regard to legality associated with political assassinations is that “decisions to assassinate are typically not the result of a fair legal procedure, based on a “due process.” 2 One of the reasons why this is such a pertinent point in regard to the use of political assassinations is because the use of assassination is typically not something that is in any way controlled. While it might be associated with organizations such as cabals, conspirators, and even governments — the use of political assassination is basically an uncontrollable political force limited only by capacity and target-access.
Another important point to keep in mind about political assassination is that it represents an act of focused political will, rather than a general action of terror. There are distinct differences between acts of terrorism and political assassinations. The first difference is that a political assassination can be carried out without any association with the generation of terror. This is due to the fact that “The target of a political assassination plot is a very specific individual; the target of terrorism is not.” 3 In other words, the act of political assassination should be viewed as a tool which is meant to achieve a very definite and specific political result. Of course, this means that political assassination is a tremendously complex and profound ethical topic. It can be argued quite successfully that political assassinations stand as a resort of popular-justice against the Absolutism of tyranny. however, it can also be argued successfully that political assassination represents the assertion of chaos against the preservation of law.
It is easy to glamorize the impact of political assassination when it is viewed in the context of a totalitarian regime or dictatorship. The usual temptation in these cases is to see the assassination of a corrupt or abusive ruler as a more favorable alternative than a full-scale war of revolution or foreign intervention and occupation. For example, it is often suggested that the assassination of Adolph Hitler in the mid 1930’s would have prevented the outbreak of the Second World War as well as preventing the Holocaust. Hundreds of millions of lives would have been saved with the elimination of this single tyrant. Whether or not the example of Hitler can literally be substantiated, it shows the way that many people envision the use of political assassination to attain positive results. It demonstrates that, in relation of Absolutism and tyranny, political assassination can frequently be regarded as a practical and ethically viable tool for political change.
This kind of reasoning associates political assassination with justice. What is interesting about this association is that political assassination is, as previously mentioned, almost always undertaken in opposition to law. Therefore the association with political assassination is peculiarly based on an ethical and moral justification that is entirely outside of the law. This means that whatever ethical and moral principles we, as human-beings use in regard to creating laws governing the use of political assassination stand in ambiguous opposition to how we as human-beings seem to regard the justifiable use of political assassination against authoritarianism and Absolutism. For most of us, it is easy to understand that, even in regard to formal ethics, political assassination “can be interpreted sociologically as an alternative and popular system of justice. We can easily view this form of killing within the conceptual context of conflict resolution.”4 The idealization of political assassination almost always stems from the ethical framework depicted above. This means that when political assassination is used against authoritarian oppression, it is more likely to be viewed as ethically justifiable.
The danger, of course, with this generalization is that anyone committing a political assassination could use the justification that they were motivated against oppression and tyranny. A famous example of this is, obviously, the case of John Wilkes Booth who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. As is well-known, Booth was a member of a group of conspirators who sought to kill Lincoln in order to bring back the Confederate South from its defeat during the American Civil War. The killing of Lincoln was viewed not only as morally justifiable by Booth and his fellow conspirators, but viewed by hem as an act against tyranny. During the assassination, Booth “entered the presidential box unobserved, shot Lincoln, and vaulted to the stage (breaking his left leg in the process) shouting ‘Sic semper tyrannis!’ [thus always to tyrants] ‘The South is avenged!'”5 The result of booth’s action was not only to bring greater suffering to the South in the post-war era, but also to cement Lincoln’s stature as an icon of freedom and as one of America’s greatest leaders and most beloved Presidents.
In the case of the assassination of Lincoln, the irony of the previously described moral justification for the use of political assassination is obvious. If all instances of political assassination were based on the exact same circumstances, it would be easy to dismiss the idea that political assassination can be rightly associated with justice. However, history is not only filled with instances of political assassination, it is filled with instances of political assassination that show its use as a weapon against tyranny and Absolutism. In these cases, the association of political assassination with the idea of justice is far from ironic. instead, it emerges as an heroic act. Or at the very least, as a necessary act of humanity. In a case like Lincoln, the application of political assassination is a tragedy; in the case of Hitler the lack of a well-timed political assassination is a tragedy. The contrast between the two cases shows not only the wide range of moral implications that are associated with political assassinations, but the way that political assassinations carry profound historical impact.
Feliks Gross in the book The Revolutionary Party: Essays in the Sociology of Politics (1974) notes that while political assassination is an event that is recorded commonly in many past-ages and on a continuous basis, it is also a practice that varies in frequency from culture to culture. Gross writes that “Violence and assassination has appeared frequently in the past […]Among some nations, political assassination […] was frequent. Among others, individual assassination was seldom used.” 6 The variance in use across specific nations and cultures is also a reflection of the way in which the use of political assassination was viewed from a moral or ethical standpoint. In some cultures, political assassination was regarded as being more ethical than in others. Similarly in certain cultures at certain times the moral viewpoint on the use of assassination has been more or less supportive.
In some historical periods, the use of political assassination was almost institutionalized. The frequency of assassinations was such that they contributed directly to the fabric of ruling institutions and the reality of law and war. For example, Gross mentions that power was frequently transferred from one ruler to another by means of assassination in many important times in history and across a wide variety of cultures. What is important about the observations that are shown by Gross in this regard is that they refect not only the cultural ethic of a particular nation of time-period in connection to the use of political assassinations, but the way in which the use of political assassinations actually define a given culture or time-period. Gross notes that “In ancient Rome, in Arab countries of the early medieval periods, in the Ottoman Empire, assassination of competitors to power was widely practiced and was later called ‘sultanism.’ Such practice diffused the pattern of individual violence and assassination into political struggles.”7 The one constant feature of political assassinations is, as noted earlier, the targeting of a specific person for a specific political purpose.
Such a view on the use of political assassination is one which is based in the idea of autocratic rule. That said it does not represent the opposition to autocratic rule so much as it stands as a representation of the way autocratic power is transferred from one ruler to the next. This brings to light a fine, but important, distinction between the nature of intent of “popular” based assassinations and those which are “insider” based. In the case of of political assassinations that preserve the basic flow of autocratic power, but transfer the authority from one person to another, the use of political assassination can not be justified on the same moral grounds as assassinations which are targeted against tyrants. The same can be said in the case of political assassinations that are undertaken by deranged or mentally unstable people who are acting on unique psychological grounds that may reference political concerns but simultaneously be completely divorced from reality.
This factor allows gross to mention that the use of political assassination in most free-societies is likely to come, not from conspiratorial organizations, or power-seeking rivals, but from lone individuals who are mentally unstable. The use of political assassination in these cases is also an exception to the morally justifiable argument that was previously described. Instead of being ethically justifiable, the act of political assassination by a mentally unstable individual is regarded as tragic and as a consequence of the hazards that are sometimes associated with trying to protect public figures. Gross remarks that “Political assassination in most cases in democratic countries has been an individual act, a result of psychological obsession or derangement, frequently in times of political crisis or rapid political change.”8 Obviously, the irrational basis of this form of political assassination necessitates yet another ethical and moral circumstance that must be weighed in the overall evaluation of political assassinations.
By attempting to view the many sides of the debate that circulates around the topic of political assassination it is possible to see that political assassinations are not only a political issue, they are a moral and philosophical issue. They are also a sociological issue. Gross points out that all political assassinations carry a social consequence and therfore must be examined through a sociological perspective. The sociological consequences of a political assassination are clear, according to Gross, “when the act or attempt is considered in relation to the three major variables: the social and political situation and process; the actor and his personality; the political party or groups he represents and which support him.” 9 In many respects the sociological issues associated with political assassinations are the most historically significant. This is because the use of political assassination, particularly in instances where it is used as a populist expression against Absolutism, represents the motion of social evolution, which is generally toward a greater degree of individual freedom and liberty.
Just as history evidences many cases where political assassination was used by selfish power-seekers or delusional psychopaths, history also shows important instances when political assassination resulted in the termination of abusive and inhumane dictatorships. An article in London’s Daily Mail titled “Rome’s Dirty Dozen; How Violence, Insanity and Incest Destroyed the Empire’s 12 Caesars” (2012) notes that the succession of Roman Caesars shows the frequency and purpose of political assassinations. The article observes that “there were 12 Caesars […] each with their own little foibles — such as trying to seduce the moon, or praising a tortured entertainer for the musicality of his screams”10 all of which suggests the prevalence of tyranny in the Roman era. The article then notes that “Of these Caesars, all despots, most psychopaths and perverts, six were assassinated.”11 The use of assassination as a political means to rid a system of a corrupt or inept ruler is a part of the overall paradigm of political assassination as an act against tyranny. however, the assassination of corrupt or unjust rulers is not always carried out by populist consent even when it results in a greater expansion of populist freedom. The assassination of certain rulers as a result of corruption is carried out by insiders.
For example, in the famous case of the Roman Emperor Gaius Caligula, the popular will of the Roman people stood with caligula during the early years of his reign. The Mail article notes that “At first, the crowd loved Gaius Caligula; it was a year or so into his four-year rule that he degenerated into paranoia, creating a myth of himself as a God-king and […] took an orgiastic delight in slaughter, treating Rome as his own homicidal circus.”12 The tyranny of Caligula was quite real and carried profound consequences not only for the Roman people, but for the entire geo-political world at that time. The case of Caligula is not especially more disheartening or brutal than any other number of tyrannical dictatorships that have been present in human history. that said, Caligula does offer an excellent example of just how profound the impact of a corrupt or tyrannical ruler can be on multiple levels, including political, cultural, and economic levels.
One example of this is the way in which Caligula squandered his own military. He was able to sue them like puppets to achieve purely political gains. In one extreme case, “His was the first army to invade Britain — although to the disgust of his soldiers it was just a masquerade to impress the Senate. Instead they gathered seashells as the ‘spoils’ of victory.”13. As his brutality and waste increased, caligula’s tyranny became not only a local threat, but an international threat. It is not difficult to imagine what might have been the consequences to the Roman people and to the nations of the world had Caligula lived to enjoy his reign into old-age. If he had not already bankrupted the Roman Empire and weakened its military, he’d done his best to try. For these reasons and many others, “At 41 he was assassinated by his own imperial bodyguard.”14 Caligula’s failure to live into his “golden years” was a blessing for Rome and for the world. his assassination shows the way in which the killing of a single, specific political figure can altar history for the better.
Similarly, the assassination of Julius Caesar is noted by historians as one of the most important vents in Roman history. Harriet I. Flower asserts in the book Roman Republics (2010) that the assassination of Caesar was not only one of the signal events of Roman history, but that it was a focal point for the cultural and political evolution of Rome itself. Flower writes that “historians would choose Caesar’s assassination in 44 as the turning point, as if his dictatorship was still part of ‘republican’ politics [many] thought that Caesar’s death would see the immediate and spontaneous re-emergence of a republic, which in the event did not happen.”15 in this instance, the hoped-for result of increased freedom from tyranny backfired and the assassination of Caesar resulted in an expansion of tyranny. The threat of Absolutism is such that assassinations of single figures are often effective short-term responses, but also prove to be ineffectual at preventing the resurgence of tyrants.
Seeing political assassination from this angel, it would appear that the use of political assassinations in regard to tyranny and Absolutism exists as a part of a cycle. the cycle is based on just how far the populist will can be ignored or subverted before political assassination is brought forward as a tactic for fighting against oppression and exploitation. As mentioned during the opening of this examination into the ethics of political assassination, it is when the tactic of political assassination is used against despots and Absolutism that the greatest degree of ethical justification is possible. In fact, under circumstances such as those which are associated with tragically brutal and unjust dictators and absolutists, the use of political assassination can actually be considered to be an extension of popular will.
On the other hand, political assassination can occupy ambiguous ethical grounds as well. In terms of how the influence of political assassination has been felt in different cultures at different periods of time, the ethical perspective on political assassinations has either been condemning or condoning. In either case, acts of political assassination need not be used only against tyrants. Also, even when political assassination is directed against a tyrant, the assassination is not always carried out by a party that is interested in altering the tyrannical policies associated with the targeted victim. Often, political assassination is simply used to replace on tyrant with another. In some cases acts of political assassination actually seem to serve the purpose of maintaining Absolutism, rather than striking against it. One example of this is the way that political assassination was used in the history of Russian royalty in the late eighteenth century. Max Beloff, in his study, The Age of Absolutism, 1660-1815 (1954), mentions that in Russian history an act of political assassination can actually be used to mark the end of absolutist rule in that era.
Beloff notes that “The Age of Absolutism’ in Russia may be said to have extended from the beginning of the personal rule of Peter the Great in 1789 until the assassination of Paul I in 1801.”16 the way that assassination functioned in Russian history at this point was to create an atmosphere conducive to conspiracy which led to assassinations within the elite level of society that failed to fundamentally alter or even interrupt the rule of the monarchy. This shows that political assassination can be used to create movement and change within an existing Absolutist power-structure without actually changing the overall strength or position of the tyrannical authority that holds power. In these cases, the ethical implication of political assassination is very different than in cases where political assassination is used against tyrant with the intent of curbing oppression and Absolutism. This kind of political assassination also differs from those which are committed by mentally unstable actors, as previously described.
Beloff also points out that political assassinations that are carried out within existing monarchies are often methods of consolidating rather than ending tyrannical and dynastic power. In regard to the ending of the Age of Absolutism in Russia, Beloff writes that the end of absolutism failed to bring about any kind of true change within the rule of the nobles. He notes that ‘despite this long succession of conspiracies and assassinations, the monarchy survived with unimpaired strength.”17 This is an important fact to keep in mind in regard to the examination of political assassination as a whole because it demonstrates that political assassination is not only a tool of radicalism, but a tool of conservatism as well. The fact that political assassination manifests in so many different ways means that adapting traditional philosophical and ethical systems to the issue is often difficult.
For example, in regard to the use of political assassinations in general, an ethical system such as Kant’s Categorical Imperative would seem to reject the practice as un-ethical under any circumstance. Alder and Cain in their study Kant, “Eleventh Reading,” in Ethics: The Study of Moral Values (1962) pose a series of questions relative to Kant’s formulation of ethics. Among these questions is the question of assassination. The authors write: “Does the categorical imperative forbid men to assassinate tyrants in order to end their unjust rule and save thousands or millions of men from being harmed or murdered?”18 Of course, the question is answered by the authors in strict relation to their interpretation of the Kantian ethical perspective. One interesting thing about the application of Kant’s formal ethical system to the issue of political assassination is that it immediately disregards the emotional and subjective psychological aspects of the issue.
Basically, according to Kant’s categorical imperative, it is necessary that any ethical law be based in a rational appraisal of the value of a given decision or behavior. According to Kant a moral act need not be based in any kind of emotional response “If the act were moral, it would not be motivated primarily by compassion and benevolence, and it would not be a prudential means of attaining an end beyond itself.”19 this means that the rational approach to morality and ethical decision-making is the only approach allowed under Kant’s ethics. Another aspect of Kant’s categorical imperative is that any ethical law must be universal. This means that, in regard to political assassinations it is not appropriate to change the ethical parameters on a case by case basis. Under Kant’s ethical system all acts of political assassination hold the same level of ethical viability and there are no alterations or distinctions due to context.
The basic ethical justification that has been given for political assassination in the previous discussion has been that political assassination when used against tyrants for the purpose of expressing a popular will against oppression can be regarded as an ethically “good” act. The reason that this justification is claimed to be viable is because it asserts a belief that the consequences of the admittedly unlawful act of assassination will produce a greater good despite the immediate negative impact of murder and law-breaking. Such a view is often characterized as one one which believes that “ends justify the means.” It is unlikely that any genuine argument in support of political assassination as an ethically sound act could be made that does not to some extent rest on this basic belief. In Kant’s view, however, it is never permissable to sacrifice the universality of an ethical conviction in order to attain a desired result.
In terms of how Kant’s Categorical Imperative stands in relation to the issue of political assassinations, even those which are directed against tyrants, the best way to explain the ethical paradigm at work is that political assassination violates Kant’s precepts due to its lack of being universally applicable and also because it is predicted on a knowing breach of law. In Kant’s view “Any decision made on the basis of a calculation of consequences — even the decision not to tell a lie because it might ultimately harm us — cannot become a universal law.”20 The failure of Kant’s categorical imperative to accommodate an ethical justification for political assassination is obvious and it demonstrates how difficult it is to find any kind of formal justification for the use of political assassination, particularly in absence of an appeal to subjective conditions and emotional response.
It is this difficulty in approaching a formal ethical justification for political assassination that has resulted in the issue being both volatile and pragmatically dangerous in the modern world. the real-world impact of political assassinations are not based in abstract ethical theories, no matter how convincing and logical the system may be. The comparison of Kant’s categorical imperative withe the ethical question of political assassination serves to illustrate that in attempting to justify political assassination as an ethically sound choice, even when it is is used against tyrants, the more abstract and formal the ethical criteria being employed are, the less likely that the act of political assassination will be found to be morally justifiable. The Kant reference is also useful in showing that universality plays a tricky role in the subject of political assassination. Obviously, the formalization of a justification for any type of political assassination could be increasingly formalized until it was a true paradigm or law. the inability to articulate such a paradigm indicates just how ambiguous the justification for political assassination on moral grounds has traditionally been and continues to be.
Rather than adhering to Kant’s Categorical imperative, the act of political assassination might find a better basis for justification is a purely political system of ethics. Such a system is of course offered by the famous philosopher Machiavelli. His ethical theories, unlike Kant’s are based not in universality but on the pragmatic accumulation and preservation of political power. This is not to say that the ethical ideas that are offered by Machiavelli are based only in self-gratification or egotism. What is more accurate is to see Machiavelli’s ethical ideas as being based in a sense of practical realism. in other words, the ethical system recognizes human nature for what it actually is rather than what would rationally be an ideal. This corresponds, if in a not so obvious way, to the emotional appeal for the justification of political assassination against Absolutism. It corresponds because it recognizes that human beings are not only rational creatures, but also emotional creatures whoa re motivated by feelings and ambitions as well as intellectual understanding.
Ruth W. Grant examines Machiavelli’s ethical system in her study Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politic (1997) and concludes that much of the ethical ideas championed by Machiavelli were based “in the recognition of natural human weakness and the limitations of political reality that follow from it.” 21 In other words, according to Grant, for Machiavelli, hypocrisy was a universal human trait that should be factored into the pragmatic application of morals in any given political context. This means that “In a world where men are not good […] immoral political actions are justified when, and only when, moral ones would be worse in their effects. An assassination that prevents a war could be justified in this way, for example.” 22 So here, at last, is a system of formal, or at least semi-formal, ethics that allows for the justification of political assassination. Of interest to note is that the justification for political assassination is till given on moral and ethical grounds rather than legal grounds. this is due to the fact that, as previously stated, the specification of how to justify political assassination has been a task that has so far eluded humanity as a collective species. Political assassination is seldom, if ever, justified on legal grounds. instead, those who wish to justify political assassination make an appeal on emotional and ethical grounds. The key difference between the law and Machiavelli’s interpretation of political morality is that the law tends to reflect what humanity aspires to be while Machiavelli’s ethics aspires to describe human nature as it is, without any form of idealization.
Along with Machiavelli’s ethical justification for political assassination, there is a n extensive amount of historical support in the form of philosophical observations and paradigms. Mark V. Vlasic’s article “Assassination & Targeted Killing – a Historical and Post-Bin Laden Legal Analysis” (2012) explores the way in which political assassinations have been accepted as morally and ethically justifiable throughout history in various cultures and under various conditions while still remaining, for the most part, illegal. Vlasic examines many incidents of history and various philosophical ideas in order to present a background to the evolution of moral and legal thought in regard to political assassinations. He writes that “Assassination is far from a modern phenomenon. Before the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) infamous attempts on figures like Fidel Castro, the early Romans, Greeks, and Persians plotted their own acts of assassination.”23 The reason that Vlasic goes to such great pains to establish the historical context for the use of political assassination is to show that while it has been a fairly common and always-present practice it has rarely, if ever, been codified into law.
The use of political assassination against tyrants found early justification from many thinkers. According to Vlasic, Dante wrote on assassination and connected it with the idea of “tyrannicide;’ while “Saint Thomas Aquinas opined that killing a sovereign for the common good was legally justified, and in some cases, even noble.”24 History shows both in word and action that political assassination play a key role in the shaping of culture and the evolution of nations. that said, the interaction between the use of political assassination and the formulation of law, and also of International law, is one that resists easy understanding. Roughly speaking, political assassination is rooted in human nature but prohibited by human law.
According to Vlasic, the historical justification for the use of political assassination is often rooted in the idea that nations and individuals each have an instinct for self-preservation. Therefore, “Not merely by the law of nature but also by the law of nations … it is in fact permissible to kill an enemy in any place whatsoever; and it does not matter how many there are that do the deed, or who suffer….” 25. Obviously, the trick with this kind of justification is arriving at a suitable definition of “enemy.” However, the examining of various justifications for political assassination that are evident in history helps to support Vlasic’s later discussion of the contemporary standards of international law and how they apply to the use of political assassination. This segment of Vlasic’s study was of particular interest given the fact that political assassination is on the increase in the post 9-11 world.
The so-called War-on-Terror has brought with it an expansion of the practice of political assassination, even if most of these actions are called, not assassinations, but ‘targeted killings.” Such an expansion of the use of political assassination by the U.S and other governments represents a crucial turning point both in the evolution of politics and warfare, but on the evolution of the debate around political assassinations. this fast-paced evolution of technology and conditions is something that forms an important basis of Vlasic’s argument. What Vlasic sees is an expansion of targeted killings that are actually political assassinations and which, as such, stand in violation of international law.
Vlasic points out that according to United Nations statutes“that any ‘assassination’ would be encompassed by the UN prohibition against unlawful use of force. Further, any action on behalf of a state to supply and control foreign agents in an attempt to conduct an assassination would likely violate the prohibition against aggression.” 26 The way that nations who employ political assassination get around the prohibition is to claim that the prohibition is valid only in peacetime. During war, what would otherwise be considered an unlawful political assassination becomes a targeted killing. With the advent and proliferation of drones, Eth entire paradigm of political assassination, particularly in connection with global warfare has become exceedingly complicated and difficult to control.
The fact remains that, again, political assassinations even when conducted by nations are generally done so against the law. That said, the mitigating circumstance of warfare is an important thing to keep in mind. According to the United Nations, “The international law of assassination differs, however, when states are involved in armed conflict; during armed conflict, a separate doctrine of law applies, the international law of war, referred to by some as international humanitarian law.”27 Therefore the globally non-specific “war on terror” basically gives the U.S. a blanket exemption from international law in regard to the use of political assassination as a tool of foreign policy. This is a profound development in the way that nation-states are seen to operate in relation to one-another and the repercussions of this policy are only beginning to be felt on a world scale. only time will tell if the targeted killings and political assassinations that have been carried out by the U.S. and its allies in the War on Terror will result in a true de-escalation of violence and the promotion of international stability.
It may seem at first glance that the issue of state-sponsored political assassinations has little or nothing to do with the topic of assassination as a tool resist Absolutism. however, on closer inspection it should be obvious top any observer that the reason the discussion of state sponsored assassination is so important is because it represents yet another dimension of the political assassination dynamic as a whole, this time showing the dangers and repercussions that are inherent in the state targeting individuals or groups with political assassination. Again a moral rather than legal justification is claimed. however, the use of political assassination and targeting killing by the state represents the complete inversion of the original justification for political assassination. If the original justification for the use of political assassination was based in the idea of fighting tyranny, then the use of political assassination by the state represents an obvious expansion of tyranny.
While the historical paradigms associated with political assassination show that the act is commonly unrelated to the rebellion against tyranny, the evolution in the modern age of strategies of political assassination on a wide-scale by the state usher in a new era of fear and oppression. It may be that the trend of the future is that the tool of political assassination will become increasingly more and more difficult to be used by the average citizen while the process of political assassination will become more and more efficient when run by the state. This sets the stage for a totalitarian police-state where one of the most effective weapons for the exertion of popular will has been taken over by the ruling class. This will mean that the masses will have less political recourse than they already experience and that the governing class will have an even greater latitude of control and immunity. These are extremely important aspects of the debate about political assassination because they directly relate to the immediate and long-term future.
One immediate concern with the use of state-sponsored political assassinations is what other potential actions could result from the adoption of this doctrine? For example, what if, as in a scenario described by Louis Rene Beres, a foreign country with whom we are not at war begins to pose such a significant threat that we then decide to use political assassination as a preemptive tool? Beres, in his article, “The Newly Expanded American Doctrine of Preemption: Can It Include Assassination?” (2002) forwards a scenario involving the potential threat of nuclear proliferation, he describes a hypothetical situation where “a particular state determines that another state is planning a nuclear or chemical surprise attack upon its population centers”28 and that furthermore, according to the first state’s intelligence reports “the assassination of selected key figures (or perhaps just one leadership figure) would prevent such an attack altogether.”29. the article goes on to suggest that such an application of political assassination wold be justifiable both in ethical and practical terms.
The same article goes on to project that political assassination, particularly in connection to the War on terror should not be limited to use against known combatants. In fact, according to the article, the use of political assassination is justifiable even when applied to those who support those who are engaged in a military conflict with the U.S and its allies. Such a policy basically opens the door for the assassination of nay political figure on the face of the earth. Beres writes that “In assessing assassination as a permissible form of preemption against terrorism, we must recognize that the prospective target of assassination may be not only terrorists themselves, but also officials of states that support terrorism.” 30 this kind of thinking shows, clearly, how the act of political assassination can turn from one of liberation and populist will to an act of extremely dark and foreboding political oppression and the spread of state-sponsored tyranny. The basic contrast between these two modes forms the heart of the conflict of the debate on the issue of political assassination.
As the preceding discussion has clearly shown, the two major challenges that are inherent in trying to provide an ethical justification for political assassination are formality and universality. In other words, it is very difficult to draw up a law that could be universally applied in regard to the use of political assassination against Absolutism. Although it is obvious that human beings as a whole almost instinctively pursue political assassination as a course of social resistance against tyranny, it is also true that such a moral instinct is impossible to quantify or define. It is is also true, as previously stated, that many acts of political assassination are carried out by mentally unstable individuals who perhaps only inadvertently, impact political conditions. Still other acts of political assassination, as shown by the previous discussion, serve only to reinforce established power-bases and dynastic lines. And in still other cases of political assassination, the use of state-sponsored killing is used to establish an even higher order of oppression and tyranny that threatens to disempower the masses on a scale never before seen.
What the discussion above show most clearly is that political assassination in the modern era is moving rapidly toward becoming a tool that is used to subvert, rather than serve the population. It is becoming a tool of government to be used against the people rather than a last resort of the people agist the government. What is also evident is the fact that while political assassination can be morally but not legally justifiable as a populist act of political will, it can be legally redefined by the state as ‘targeted killing” and therefore expanded and sustained at a rate that truly diminishes popular resistance or the populist will to change.
- Nachman Ben-Yehuda, “Political Assassination Events as a Cross-Cultural Form of Alternative Justice,” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 38, no. 1-2 (1997).
- ‘Booth, John Wilkes’ The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. Columbia University Press, 2012.
- Feliks Gross, The Revolutionary Party: Essays in the Sociology of Politics (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974), 172.
- Ibid, 173.
- Ibid, 167.
- Ibid, 174.
- “ROME’S DIRTY DOZEN; How Violence, Insanity and Incest Destroyed the Empire’s Caesars; BOOK OF THE WEEK,” Daily Mail (London), June 8, 2012,
- Harriet I. Flower, Roman Republics; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010, 14.
- Max Beloff, The Age of Absolutism, 1660-1815 (London: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1954), 133.
- Ibid, 142.
- Kant, “Eleventh Reading,” in Ethics: The Study of Moral Values, by Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1962), 224.
- Ibid, 223.
- Ibid. 215.
- Ruth W. Grant, Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 26.
- Mark V. Vlasic, “Assassination & Targeted Killing – a Historical and Post-Bin Laden Legal Analysis,” Georgetown Journal of International Law 43, no. 2 (2012).
24-27 . Ibid.
- Louis Rene Beres, “The Newly Expanded American Doctrine of Preemption: Can It Include Assassination?,” Denver Journal of International Law and Policy 31, no. 2 (2002).
Beloff, Max. The Age of Absolutism, 1660-1815. London: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1954.
Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. “Political Assassination Events as a Cross-Cultural Form of Alternative Justice.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 38, no. 1-2 (1997): 25+.
Beres, Louis Rene. “The Newly Expanded American Doctrine of Preemption: Can It Include Assassination?” Denver Journal of International Law and Policy 31, no. 2 (2002): 157+
Daily Mail (London). “ROME’S DIRTY DOZEN; How Violence, Insanity and Incest Destroyed the Empire’s 12 Caesars; BOOK OF THE WEEK.”
Flower, Harriet I. Roman Republics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Grant, Ruth W. Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Gross, Feliks. The Revolutionary Party: Essays in the Sociology of Politics. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974.
Kant. “Eleventh Reading.” In Ethics: The Study of Moral Values, by Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain, 207-26. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1962.
Vlasic, Mark V. “Assassination & Targeted Killing – a Historical and Post-Bin Laden Legal Analysis.” Georgetown Journal of International Law 43, no. 2 (2012): 259+.