This note considers assassinations as a political and
online cultural phenomenon.
It covers -
- an outline of literature on the basis of assassinations,
ethics, key incidents and popular culture
fears and fantasies
- a discussion of newsgroups, conspiracy sites and other
aspects of assassination as an online cultural phenomenon
- debate about moral and legal aspects of assassination
- a chronology of assassinations (and failed attempts)
in Australia, Europe and elsewhere since the 1540s
It supplements discussion of security, censorship, governance,
sedition and bombmaking. It highlights assassination of
political and other figures, illustrating that the phenomenon
is not uniquely modern, tied to religious belief or restricted
to action by groups.
The following paragraphs consider questions about identification
and some issues.
Assassination has been variously characterised as an expression
of sectarian violence, a response to modernisation, an
artefact of mass media coverage and something that threatens
civil society and thus requires restriction through sedition
or other legislation.
Those characterisations have been disputed by observers
who have argued that assassination flourished in pre-modern
societies, has often been independent of religious affiliation
and has existed without the oxygen of publicity. Observers
have also questioned both the efficacy and basis for proposed
restrictions on publishing and speech.
Disagreement partly reflects uncertainty about definitions.
Does assassination encompass any violent death of a public
figure? Should the term be restricted to acts by individuals
rather than agencies of the state? Does it relate only
to government figures? Does it necessarily have a covert
flavour? Does it occur outside national/international
law. Is there value in differentiating between political
(or religious) motivations and acts by those with psychological
Lack of unanimity about the concept results in claims
that assassination victims include John Lennon, Salman
Rushdie's Japanese translator, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas
a' Becket, Federico Garcia Lorca, Harvey Milk, Queen Myongsong
of Korea and Admiral Yamamoto.
The online Encyclopadia Britannica anounces that
of the most conspicuous facts of public life in the
20th century has been the killing, usually for political
reasons, of public figures. Such murders are called
killing has, however, been a "conspicuous fact"
of most previous epochs and the number of notables killed
during the period from 1800 to 1900 was at least equal
to the numbers dispatched after 1901.
Queen Victoria, like predecessors such as George III,
experienced recurrent attacks by the deranged or Irish
nationalists. Russian Tsars were murdered by radicals
or by their entourage; being shot, stabbed or bombed was
an occupational hazard for senior tsarist officials. In
France there were a succession of attempts - sometimes
successful and often killing numerous bystanders - against
kings, emperors and presidents. Particular incidents are
in this note.
Action by the politically disaffected, ambitious or inspired
echoed murders over previous centuries - for example ecclesiastical
irritant Thomas a Becket in England, William the Silent
in the Netherlands, the Duc de Guise and Kings Henry III
and IV in France. The etymology of 'assassin' has indeed
been traced to an Islamic sect, at the Crusades, whose
members gained notoriety for success in eliminating Christian
and Moslem alike.
Contrary to some claims, murder of leaders or of minor
officials and intellectuals is thus not an unprecedented
modern phenomenon. Killing as an exemplary 'propaganda
of the deed' predates radio and mass circulation newspapers.
As with suicide, its
incidence appears to be affected by emulation, with outbreaks
of copycat attempts against particular figures.
Historiography concerns itself with the dogs that did
bark, understandably concentrating on attempts that met
with success rather than those that failed and were thus
relegated to a footnote or lost to memory. In retrospect
it is difficult to determine the effectiveness of precursors
of what online conspiracy
theorists (and civil liberties analysts) tag the 'security
state'. Security agencies have an institutional imperative
to emphasise the dangers facing those they seek to protect
and to attribute survival to their vigilance.
Depictions of assasination in popular culture - in particular
in online fora - are sometimes premised on the notion
that the 'lone gunman' (or the pervasive conspiracy) and
technical ingenuity are peculiarly modern. That is not
the case, with renaissance bids for example featuring
poisoned bodices and gloves, a bid to kill Napoleon using
a poisoned snuffbox and another bid employing a prototype
As with today, many of the successful attempts were low
tech (first knives, then pistols) rather than using state
of the art equipment and often succeeded through happenstance
and because the target was publicly accessible (eg held
public receptions, paused to enter his home, mingled with
the audience at the opera).
There are substantial continuities in debates about ethical
and legal frameworks for assassination during wartime
(or during a cold war) and for their prevention. Traditional
tensions regarding principle and practice are evident
in contemporary disagreement about incitements to violence,
criticisms and calls for disobedience, and access to bomb-making
In Europe the Jesuits, for example, gained notoriety during
the early Counter-Reformation for casuistry justifying
breaking oaths of allegiance and committing murder. Others
excused the deaths of passers-by as a regrettable but
acceptable consequence of the need to kill tyrants or
to remove the 'acceptable face' of despotism. More recently
German officers agonised over the acceptability of eliminating
the presiding mass murderer. US policymakers showed few
qualms about what is now sometimes painted as the wartime
assassination of Japanese military leader Isoroku Yamamoto.
Different schools of radicals in the age of steam used
a railway metaphor,
with assassination being characterised as a mechanism
for speeding up (or slowing down) the engine of history
... or merely switching the train to a different track.
Benjamin Jones & Benjamin Olkin's 2007 'Hit and Miss?
The Effect of Assassinations on Institutions and War'
crunched numbers before indicating
find that the successful assassination of autocrats
produces institutional change - substantially raising
the probability that a country transitions to democracy
... The successful assassination of an autocrat creates
a highly significant 13-percentage point increase in
the probability of democratic transition, compared to
the case where the assassination attempt failed
argue that explosive devices have succeeded in 7% of assassination
attempts since 1875 (with 59 national leaders have been
"shot, knifed, incinerated, poisoned, blown up, driven
off the road or otherwise extinguished"). Use of
guns is supposedly more successful, at 30%. Olin &
Jones claim that 239 monarchs, presidents and prime ministers
escaped with their lives but exclude plots that were foiled
prior to the time of execution.
all that is solid melts into air
A subsequent page of this note explores assassination
as an online cultural phenomenon, with the net at times
resembing a vast echo chamber resounding with misreporting,
disinformation and collective paranoias. It is a realm
where the enthusiast can play six degrees of separation
(or stupidity) in connecting the 'assassination' of Marilyn
Monroe with the grassy knoll, malign fantasies about the
'Elders of Zion',
cow-tipping, alien abductions, the WTO, fluoridation and
It is clear that in the past there were intense although
isolated and short-term moral panics about assassination.
In retrospect some of the longer-lived anxieties about
groups such as the Jesuits, the Carbonari, the Illuminati,
the Nihilists, the Black Hand and International Workers
of the World now seem quaint, misplaced or simply incomprehensible
by anyone not immersed in the mentalites - and media -
of the particular period.