A brief history of political assassination

The first Westerner to describe the original assassins was 12th-century Jewish chronicler Benjamin of Tudela.

oswald features 88 (photo credit: )
oswald features 88
(photo credit: )
Maniacs don't coin truisms very often. So when Charles Manson acolyte Lynnette "Squeaky" Fromme declares that "anybody can kill anybody," you could almost dismiss the assertion. Almost, that is, until you realize that she very nearly assassinated US president Gerald Ford.

Assassination is not the private domain of the crackpot crowd, either: It's generally accepted that anybody, if they're determined enough and persistent enough, could indeed kill anybody else.

That's especially true if the "anybody" being targeted is the head of state. In some cultures, in fact, regicide was practically a pastime. For Roman emperors, for instance, assassination was almost as likely as a natural death. In the year 238 alone, three emperors were assassinated - prey to murderous coups, just like Julius Caesar, Caligula, Claudius and a dozen others. Seleucid and Persian rulers, too, were particularly susceptible to regicide. The killing of Czar Nicholas II by Bolsheviks was hardly the only Russian political assassination, just the most famous. And the list of European kings and queens to have suffered assassination over the centuries is so long that it wouldn't fit in these pages.

Even today, monarchs aren't safe. As recently as 2001, Nepal's King Birendra, along with Queen Aiswary and nine other members of the royal family, were slaughtered - apparently by Birendra's eldest son and heir.

Actually, family spats and jealousies have frequently motivated political murders. Albert I of Habsburg, for one, was dispatched in 1308 by his nephew, whom he had deprived of his inheritance. In the Arab world, siblings, cousins and nephews have frequently emptied the throne by killing their kin.

Prime ministers the world over have also been "removed from office" - and from this world - at the hands of assassins. Japan has lost five, Romania and Spain have each lost four, Iran three, Jordan two and Bhutan one, just to name a few.

Four American presidents have been shot dead. But presidents have been assassinated in just about every other country, too, from Afghanistan to Zanzibar. Throughout the entire continent of Latin America, it was simply not a good idea to accept the job in the 20th century, when presidents were killed in Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay and Peru. And in 1985, even the tiny Pacific island of Palau witnessed its president's assassination.

The fallout of a political killing can be quite complex, though, and is frequently unintended. Abraham Lincoln's death did not reverse the course of the American Civil War, as his assassin had hoped it would, but Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination triggered World War I.

Some assassination stories are just plain weird. Like this one: King George I of Greece (who was actually Danish) was shot in the back by a deranged man in 1913. Three years later his grandson, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia, would himself turn assassin - after falling in love with a cross-dressing bisexual fellow nobleman, no less - joining the group that murdered Grigori Rasputin, the highly controversial adviser to the aforementioned Nicholas II.

Snuffing out the bearded mystic was not easy, either. When Rasputin survived the cyanide-laced pastries that he was forced to eat, his assailants shot him in the liver; at this, he fell on the floor and seemed to have died. But as the conspirators carried him to a nearby river, Rasputin suddenly began trying to free himself. They dropped him and shot him again, this time in the lung. At the same time, a British agent hiding in a bush shot Rasputin in the head. Finally, the Russian conspirators dumped his body in the frozen-over river, through a hole in the ice. Some believe, however, that Rasputin survived even this for a short time.

Yes, the art can be quite tricky. Pakistani terrorist Ramzi Yousef bungled an attempt to kill his country's president Benazir Bhutto in 1993, botched an attempt to murder Israel's ambassador and his entire staff in Bangkok in 1994, and then had his plan to assassinate pope John Paul II fall apart in 1995. Yousef had also plotted to kill US president Bill Clinton around the same time, but gave that up, and was captured shortly thereafter.

So assassination is not always simple, though it is certainly common, and usually effective. Even the real-life Dracula is believed to have succumbed to assassins.

While many people know that the word "assassin" is derived from the Hashashin, members of a rogue Islamic sect credited with elaborate and daring assassination raids, few realize that 12th-century Jewish chronicler Benjamin of Tudela was the first Westerner to describe them. In Jewish history, however, political assassination is a bit of an anomaly.

Before prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's murder at the hands of Yigal Amir a decade ago, left-wing Zionist leader Haim Arlosoroff was gunned down in Tel Aviv in 1933, presumably by Revisionists. Other than that, there was the slaying of the regional governor Gedalya by a fellow Jew and political rival - in the time of Nebuchadnezzar.

Jews have also taken out a few foreign enemies, though. They were generally symbolic oppressors, whether a king like Eglon of Moab (skewered by Ehud Ben-Gera, as told in the Book of Judges) or a minor German diplomat like Ernst vom Rath (shot by Herschel Grynszpan in 1938 over the expulsion of his family to Poland).

One political murder that backfired was the assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte in Jerusalem by the Stern Gang in 1948; unlike the shooting of Lord Moyne in Cairo four years earlier, the Bernadotte hit led to the Stern Gang being forcibly disarmed.

Still, assassins have suffered far worse consequences than that. Being an assassin can actually get you assassinated, as in the example of John F. Kennedy shooter Lee Harvey Oswald.

Perhaps the worst fate, however, was the punishment handed down to Frenchman Robert-Fran ois Damiens in 1757 for attempting to kill King Louis XV. First, Damiens was tortured with red-hot pincers. Then his hand, holding the knife with which he stabbed the king, was burnt using sulphur; molten wax, lead, and boiling oil were poured into his wounds. As if that were not enough, horses were then harnessed to Damiens's arms and legs for his dismemberment. His joints would not break, though, even after several hours of this torture. So representatives of Parliament ordered the executioner and his aides to sever Damiens's joints. His dismembered trunk, apparently still living, was then burnt at the stake.

Maybe such treatment is just the kind of thing that would deter "anybody" from killing "anybody else." After all, not even Squeaky Fromme would have risked that.