In its most common use, assassination has come to mean the murder of an important person, although the term really refers to murder via stealth.
An assassin — one who carries out the assassination — is usually motivated by ideological or political reasons. Other motivations may be money in the case of a hitman; opposition to a person's beliefs or belief systems in the case of a fanatic; orders from a government that are often carried about by a subversive agent such as a spy); or loyalty to a competing leader or group.
Assassination, like companion terms such as terrorism and freedom fighter, is often considered to be a loaded term. The definition of assassination is generally much clearer than the others. Most assassins appear comfortable enough with their deed to describe it as such publicly, whereas few call themselves terrorists.
The term originally referred to a heretical Islamic order known as the Hashshashin. The word means "those who use hashish (cannabis resin)" in Arabic because, according to Crusader histories, that group used to ingest hashish before carrying out military or assassination operations, in order to be fearless. The group, known as the Nizari Ismailis, was a Shia order who believed in the notion of the hidden imam and was organized as a secret underground political order, which infiltrated areas under the control of Seljuk Turks. In 1090 the sect captured a castle called Alamut in the mountains of Northern Iran. This sect was said to carry out assassinations of the enemies of the order, or Muslim rulers they believed to be impious. The earliest known record of the word in English (dating from the early 17th century) refers to this sect rather than its more general modern sense. Similar words had earlier appeared in French and Italian.
Benjamin of Tudela provided the first western account of the sect. Marco Polo's ellaborate account is probably fictionalized in part. He said that recruits were promised Paradise in return for dying in action. They were drugged, often with materials such as hashish (although some suggest opium and wine instead, all being, nonetheless, condemned by Islamic religious authorities and interpretations of the time) then spirited away to a garden stocked with attractive and compliant women and fountains of wine. At this time, they were awakened and it was explained to them that such was their reward for the deed, convincing them that their leader, Hassan-i-Sabah, could open the gates to Paradise. The name assassin is derived from either hasishin for the supposed influence of their attacks and disregard for their own lives in the process, or hassansin for their leader. All this history, however, is tenous, as it relies entirely on crusader-authored histories which have been traditionally very unreliable for information about native cultures.
Nowadays is known that "hashishinnya" was an offensive term used to depict this cult by his muslim and mongolian detractor; the extreme zeal of Nizarites and the very cold preparation to murder makes very unlikely they ever used drugs, while there is evidence that one of the first Hassan's son was sentenced to death by his father only for drinking some drop of wine. Moreover, despite many unlikely legend, they usually died along with their target (a tale tells of a mother being sad knowing his son survived a "mission"), as far as it is known they only used dagger (no other weapons, poison or whatever fictional records make them use) and it seems like they killed only five occidental people during the Crusade time.
Unlike some topics, notably terrorism, wherein there is a substantial grey area and often bitter controversy between which specific instances qualify or even what standards should be used, the "common sense" classification of assassination stated at the outset of this article seems to stand with few objections. However, this does open larger issues concerning interpretation, notably regarding attempted killings by those with other motives — is it an assassination simply if the person is a major leader or public figure espousing a cause, or only if the assassin's reason for the attack is due to that person's status as a figurehead for a particular issue?
Notable instances in which this definitive problem might come into effect include the assassination attempt against United States President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, who was determined subsequently to have serious psychological problems and publicly stated his intent was to get the attention of actress Jodie Foster rather than make any political statement. The killing of former Beatle John Lennon would raise the same problem — despite his outspokenness on many liberal political issues, the killer does not seem to have been more than an unstable fan (although it may be of note that the word is derived from fanatic). The use of the term "assassination" to describe Lennon's murder is a matter of some additional debate, since Lennon was primarily an entertainment, not a political figure, and it could be argued that describing his killing as an assassination is no more appropriate than, for example, using the term to describe the murders of singers Selena Quintanilla or Marvin Gaye. In another example, although conspiracy theorists suggest the apparent suicide of Marilyn Monroe might have been a politically motivated murder, the term "assassination" is rarely, if ever, used in this context. The attempt on the life of President Gerald Ford by a member of Charles Manson's cult could be the same; while it might perhaps be considered part and parcel of the anti-government, neo-fascist ideology to which Manson and his group adhered, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, the assassin, was not widely considered legally competent in her judgment at the time (although she was later tried and convicted). Were these killings, assuming success, to be classified as murders or assassinations? The issue is further complicated by the fact that while Lennon was likely as outspoken politically as Reagan and Ford, and certainly as famous, Reagan and Ford were elected officials at the time, possibly requiring different criteria for Lennon's case.
One can take one of three positions (note that this consideration is of necessity strictly based upon language, not law): that the killing of someone only for political, moral, or ideological reasons constitutes an assassination (hence neither Reagan nor Lennon were the victims of assassins' attacks, while Ford was), that the killing of someone serving in politics or public office counts (thus Reagan's and Ford's attackers were would-be assassins, while Lennon's killer was not), or that anyone with a significant level of political involvement would be an assassination victim in the event of their murder (in which case all three instances would be assassinations or attempts).
While it must be acknowledged that attempting to read a person's thoughts is both imperfect and somewhat antithetical to the nature of such an issue, for the purposes of this article, the first, most conservative definition is taken. Although it is likely that the second is the most popular, the first is technically the most correct, and the third is generally considered to be too general in application. Therefore, all assassinations or attempts mentioned in the article will strictly follow the guidelines outlined at the outset to prevent confusion.
Assassination as a political tool
Some would argue that assassination is one of the oldest tools of power politics, dating back to the earliest governments of the world — Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, met his end this way. It is a fact, however, that by the rise of Rome assassination had become a commonly-accepted tool towards the end not only of improving one's own position, but to influence policy — the killing of Julius Caesar being a notable example, though many Emperors met such an end. In whatever case, there seems to have not been a good deal of moral indignation at the practice amongst the political circles of the time, save, naturally, by the affected.
As the Middle Ages came about from the fall of the Roman Empire, the moral and ethical dimensions of what was before a simple political tool began to take shape. Although in that period intentional regicide was an extremely rare occurrence, the situation changed dramatically with the Renaissance when the ideas of tyrannomachy (i.e. killing of a King when his rule becomes tyrannical) re-emerged and gained recognition. Many a head of state of the time fell at the hands of an assassin, such as Henri III and Henry IV of France. There were notable detractors, however; Abd-ul-Mejid of the Ottoman Empire refused to put to death plotters against his life during his reign.
As the world moved into the present day and the stakes in political clashes of will continued to grow to a global scale, the number of assassinations concurrently multiplied. In Russia alone, five emperors were assassinated within less than 200 years - Ivan VI, Peter III, Paul I, Alexander II and Nicholas II. The most notable assassination victim within early U.S. history was President Abraham Lincoln. Three other U.S. Presidents have been assassinated including James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy. An assassination plot against Jefferson Davis, known as the Dahlgren Affair, may have been initiated during the American Civil War. In Europe the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggered World War I. However, the 20th century likely marks the first time nation-states began training assassins to be specifically used against so-called enemies of the state. During World War II, for example, MI6 trained a group of Czechoslovakian operatives to kill the Nazi general Reinhard Heydrich (who did later perish by their efforts), and repeated attempts were made by both the British MI6, the American Office of Strategic Services (later the Central Intelligence Agency) and the Soviet SMERSH to kill Adolf Hitler.
The Cold War saw a dramatic increase in the number of political assassinations, likely in large part due to the ideological polarization of most of the First and Second worlds, whose adherents were more than willing to both justify and finance such killings. During the Kennedy era Fidel Castro narrowly escaped death on several occasions at the hands of the CIA (a function of the agency's "executive action" program) and CIA-backed rebels (there are accounts that exploding clams and poisoned shoes were employed); some allege that Salvador Allende of Chile was another example, though specific proof is lacking. At the same time, the KGB made creative use of assassination to deal with high-profile defectors such as Georgi Markov, and Israel's Mossad made use of such tactics to eliminate Palestinian guerrillas, politicians and revolutionaries, though some Israelis argue that the targeted often toed the line between one or another or were even all three.
Most major powers were not long in repudiating such tactics, for example during the presidency of Gerald Ford in the United States in 1976 (Executive Order 12333). Many allege, however, that this is merely a smoke screen for political and moral benefit and that the covert and illegal training of assassins by major intelligence agencies continue, such as at the School of the Americas run by the United States. In fact, the debate over the use of such tactics is not closed by any means; many accuse Russia of continuing to practice it in Chechnya and against Chechens abroad, as well as Israel in Palestine and against Palestinians abroad (as well as those Mossad deems a threat to Israeli national security, as in the aftermath of the Munich Massacre) and Palestinians and other Arab nations against Jews in Israel and abroad.
Proponents of assassination as a political tool point out that it can be a very effective and inexpensive way to prevent loss of life. Opponents of assassination bring up a number of objections. The first is that assassination is essentially the death penalty stripped of the normal judicial safeguards that limit its use. Second, opponents of assassination question its effectiveness. Most conventional military and political organizations are robust so that the death of the leader would not cause them to collapse. Furthermore, using assassination against a terrorist or guerilla organization may result in the complete elimination of the known leaders of that organization, but create a set of unknown leaders who cannot then be located. Finally, assassination makes a negotiation of surrender impossible. Near the end of World War II, for example, Allied forces made specific efforts not to target the political and military leadership of the Axis Powers specifically so that there would be someone to authorize a surrender.
Assassination for money
Individually, too, people have often found reasons to arrange the deaths of others through paid intermediaries. One who kills with no political motive or group loyalty who kills only for money is known as a hitman or contract killer. Note that by the definition accepted above, while such a killer is not, strictly speaking, an assassin, if the killing is ordered and financed towards a political end, then that killing must rightly be termed an assassination, and the hitman an assassin by extension (in the same way that a Manchurian Candidate-style killer would be an assassin because, though they have been brainwashed to kill and have therefore no political aims, those that brainwashed them do have such aims, and if the killing can be termed an assassination, the killer must be an assassin).
Entire organizations have sometimes specialized in assassination as one of their services, to be gained for the right price. Besides the original hashshashin, the ninja clans of Japan were rumored to perform assassinations — though it can be pointed out that most of what was ever known about the ninja was rumor and hearsay. In the United States, Murder Incorporated, an organization partnered to the Mafia, was formed for the sole purpose of performing assassinations for organized crime. In Russia, the vory (thieves), their version of the Mafia, are often known to provide assassinations for the right price, as well as engaging in it themselves for their own purposes.
Assassination as military doctrine
While assassination for military purposes has long been espoused — Sun Tzu argued for such in The Art of War, as did Machiavelli in his The Prince — many modern analysts hold the belief that today such a system would not be of any significant use in a strategic way. In medieval times, for instance, an army and even a nation might be based upon and around a particularly strong, canny or charismatic leader, whose loss could paralyze the ability of both to make war. However, in modern warfare a soldier's mindset is generally considered to surround ideals far more than specific leaders. Theoretically, while the death of a soldier's leader would (and does) have a detrimental effect on morale, the comfort of the cause for which they fight is far more sustainable than such supposedly-transitive loyalty to a single person.
Also, assassinating a military leader runs the risk of eliminating a later advocate of peace, as many would argue that military leaders, seeing the face of warfare and bearing a clearer sense of the war effort's effects, have more sagacity on the subject. Not only that, but worse, there is a high chance such a killing will be treated as not only reinforcing evidence of the opponents' moral bankruptcy, but also martyr the leader, rallying still others to an enemy cause and hardening the enemies' resolve to fight — and resist entreaties to peace (indeed, the death in battle of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, while not an assassination, led directly to the Catholic defeat at Lützen as the infuriated Swedes rallied behind their fallen leader). Such an effect can be extremely detrimental to a group or state, but supporters might argue in return that when faced with a particularly brilliant leader, there is no choice but to take the chance and, essentially, hope for a more mediocre successor (one might use the example of the many attempts to kill the Athenian Alcibiades during the Peloponnesian War, the American shooting down of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto during World War II, or arguably Henri IV of France). Also, they might note that in a time-sensitive situation, such a killing could be useful if only to briefly buy time for a more permanent and effective plan to be set into motion or stall an army as reinforcements rush to the area.
There are a number of examples from World War II, the last total war, which show how assassination can be used as an effective military tool both at a tactical and strategic level. The American's perception that Skorzeny's commandos were trying to assassinate Eisenhower during the Battle of the Bulge shows that military assassination, or the threat of it, if well timed can be a very effective tactical move. In an interview with the New York Times Skorzeny denied that he had ever intended to assassinate Eisenhower and could prove it. (Page 155, Commando Extraordinary, by Charles Foley). There is also a mention in the same book (Page 35) of a British commando raid to "capture" Rommel. If he had been removed from the board, then that might well have had strategic effects. The British, too, decided not to try to assassinate Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr (German military intelligence), because to do so might have improved the service.
Moral equivalence is also important when examining the use of assassination. Opponents of what one American officer called "trial, judgment and execution by intelligence" argue that no state deliberately training, hiring, sanctioning or harboring an assassin could hope to justify it in such a way that would satisfy its allies and neighbors, much less the affected nations (even though many might use the tactic themselves). In democracies this issue is particularly crucial; much of the impetus for engaging in military action in such states is the motivation of perceived righteousness fighting a brutal enemy, an opinion that is undermined if one's nation is actively and openly engaged in killings outside the laws of war. Many would argue that the negative morale effects alone would outweigh any possible benefits.
Supporters of assassination as a policy reply, however, that often the killing of one problematic figure can spare countless lives and years — or even decades — of warfare. An example often cited is the question of what might have come to pass had Adolf Hitler been assassinated in 1935. Countless millions, the argument goes, would have been spared had only such intervention been taken. However, it could be argued that Adolf Hitler was just one man in a Nazi Party of hundreds, and his successor may be just as brutal (not to mention vengeful). Furthermore, it can be argued that this logic would not only justify killing Hitler in 1935 but also killing baby Adolf in his crib.
However, the widespread attention paid to deeds by dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin is seen by many as another persuasive argument towards the necessity of eliminating such individuals. The increasing specter of terrorism, too, often leads many to question why, if it is "us or them," there should be any delay in taking such action (an opponent would likely be quick to reply, however, that such an action alone leads to the loss of moral equivalence, proving their above argument, although a likely counter could be that moral equivalence is of little use to either a terrorist or one of their dead victims).
It's entirely likely that the first strategy used by a political or religious killer was a remarkably simple one: find the leader and stab or bludgeon them to death with whatever weapons were available. This would likely have occurred only in close-knit groups where security was not thought needed, such as amongst nomadic or early sedentary peoples in Mesopotamia where disagreements would be solved with vigilantism (however it's important to note that information from this far back is very sketchy and debatable in nature). As civilization took root, however, any leaders in groups began to have more and more a position of importance, and they would become more detached from the groups they ruled. For the first time, subterfuge would become a major factor in engaging in assassination.
From ancient times, then, through to the medieval period, as the rate of technology was slow so, too, would be the changes in assassins' tactics. Infiltration was now the name of the game, and commonly a would-be killer would attempt to gain access to an official or person's guard or staff and utilize a variety of methods for exterminating them, be it the same close-contact stabbing or smothering or a more advanced method, such as using poison to induce death. This, however, must be distinguished from efforts by a person or group to remove a person in order to replace them in the power structure; for more on this, see coup d'état.
With the advent of gunpowder and far more effective ranged weaponry, however, bodyguards were no longer enough to hold back determined killers, who no longer needed to directly engage or even subvert the guard to kill the leader in question; it could be done from a great distance in a crowded square or even at a church, as with the Pazzi Conspiracy, for example. Often, muskets or rifles might be used to take down a leader from a rooftop, at greater distance, dramatically increasing the chances for survival of an assassin. Also, explosives became increasingly en vogue for deeds requiring a larger touch; for an example of this, see the article on the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament on the state opening.
In whatever case, it is interesting to note that just because more modern methods of killing became available does not mean older ones were replaced; indeed, in nations like India killings by knife or sword remain quite popular, as they do in sub-Saharan Africa (for example, with the machete). In fact, since the development of gunpowder each region of the world seems to have its preferred methods of contract murder; besides those mentioned, explosives are quite popular in not only the Middle East but in most of Europe as well, save Northern Europe where shootings become more common, whereas in the Americas assassinations are almost exclusively performed by gunshot. One can make various cases for any of these, including range, detectability, concealability, likelihood of kill, etc.
As the Renaissance gave way to the Industrial Revolution, assassination became more and more sophisticated, right up to today. Explosives, especially the car bomb, became far more common, and grenades and landmines were not unheard of either, especially in the Middle East and Balkans (the initial attempt on Archduke Franz Ferdinand's life was with a grenade; he was on his way to visit an aide injured in the first attack when his driver stopped to ask directions and he and his wife were shot). Also, rocket-propelled grenades became an especially useful tool, given the popularity of armored cars discussed below. Today, any manner of different techniques for the elimination of an enemy — popular or not — might be utilized; the sky, as it were, is the limit. Another common option is using a sniper rifle. The only difference is that assassins and their deeds are far more public than ever before, owing not only to mass media but also far better security and control over access.
It would not be a large stretch to say that, in addition to terrorism, politician assassination is one of the biggest threats to any modern state and its government. As such, the measures to which a leader goes to avoid professional killers ranges from what an average person would consider to be farcical to the paranoid to the downright bizarre. Many would argue, though, that such measures are a lot more effective than they first appear, and that in the world of a new threat seemingly each week, no security is too much.
One of the earliest forms of defense against assassins is without doubt the bodyguard. Essentially, the bodyguard functions as a counter-assassin, attempting to neutralize the killer before they can make contact with or inflict harm upon the "principal", or protected/targeted official. This function was often executed by the leader's most loyal warriors, and was extremely effective throughout most of early human history, to the point where a direct assassination had to be replaced with carefully-planned subterfuge, such as poison (which was answered by the food taster such as the Beefeaters protecting the English monarchs), and even then such methods were often thwarted. Notable examples of bodyguards would include the Roman Praetorian Guard or the Ottoman janissaries — although, in both cases, it should be noted that the protectors often became assassins themselves, exploiting their power to make the head of state a virtual hostage at their whim or eliminating threatening leaders altogether. Indeed, assassinations both then and today are most often effective when they have the support, tacit or open, of other powerful figures. Today, however, such a situation rarely comes to pass; the British Special Branch and American Secret Service are noted as well-trained and apolitical protective forces.
The race was on with the Middle Ages between leaders and assassins as gunpowder became predominant, each in turn trying to develop stronger and better checks against the increasing abilities of the other. One of the first reactions was to simply increase the guard, creating what at times might seem a small army trailing every leader; another was to begin clearing large areas whenever a leader was present, to the point where entire sections of a city might be shut down. Heads of state began to cease taking their armies onto the field personally around this time as well, although this was likely as much due to the increasing skills required for generalship and division of power within the government as it was for safety concerns.
As the 20th century dawned, the prevalence of assassins and their capabilities skyrocketed, and so did measures to protect against them. For the first time, armored cars or armored limousines were put into service for safer transport, with modern versions rendering them virtually invulnerable to small arms fire. Bulletproof vests were also commissioned, although these are often not worn (or worn unobtrusively) for the benefit of public perception, although some, such as former mayor of Cleveland, Ohio and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, were nonetheless compelled to do so. Access to famous persons, too, became more and more restrictive; potential visitors would be forced through dozens of different checks and double-checks before being granted access to the official in question, and as communication became better and information technology more prevalent, it has become next-to-impossible for a would-be killer of declared antigovernment or anarchist political affiliation to get close enough to the personage at work to effect an attempt on his or her life, especially given the common use of metal and bomb detectors . As such, in this century and for the foreseeable future, most assassinations will be committed either during a public performance or during transport, both due to weaker security and security lapses, such as with US President John F. Kennedy or as part of coups d'etat where security is either overwhelmed or completely removed, such as with Salvador Allende or Patrice Lumumba.
Some of the wilder and arguably stranger methods used for protection by famous people of both today and yesterday have evoked many reactions from different people, some resenting the separation from their officials or major figures, some comforted by the security and some lamenting the state of society that such measures are necessary. One example might be traveling in a car protected by a bubble of clear bulletproof glass, such as the Popemobile of Pope John Paul II (built following an extremist's attempt at his life). Frederick William I of Prussia had an entire command of soldiers above two meters of height, and would reportedly go to great lengths to obtain more. Many leaders, such as Josef Stalin or the Argentinian junta were so possessed by paranoia that they executed their opponents en masse, with the death toll ranging from hundreds to millions. Still others go into seclusion, rarely heard from or seen in public afterwards, such as writer Salman Rushdie or eccentric inventor Howard Hughes, though it is more likely that Hughes was concerned about germs than about assassination. A more exotic form of protection is the use of a body double. A body double in this case is a person who is built similar to the person he is expected to protect and made up to look like him. The body double then takes the place of the person in high risk situations. Fidel Castro, Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein are known to have used body doubles.
It is important to note that, in the final analysis, it is thought by many that if a person or group is committed beyond reason or concerns for self-preservation towards the removal of a certain person or leader from not only their position but this plane of existence, then their success is inevitable. Some of the most notable examples of such committed people would be the ninja of Japan or suicide bombers when used against a leader or official. Often, such people or groups would operate without concern for their own life in order to gain the slimmest chance of eliminating their mark. Certain leaders, notably Abraham Lincoln, were thought to have wrestled with this supposed inevitability during difficult times (with some, like Lincoln, later falling victim to it). In the end, however, any counter-measures to a trained or simply zealous killer will be attempts to resist them as best as possible with whatever means are available.
Source for conspiracy theories
Assassinations are a classic subject of conspiracy theories. The assassination of a prominent figure is a singular event which can dramatically change the course of public affairs. Those drawn to conspiracy theory are led to ask, in the aftermath of an assassination, Who benefited from this death? Though some assassinations are committed by lone individuals, and many others by aboveboard governments (such as that of Leon Trotsky), and other assassinations are committed as the result of a provable conspiracy, there have been several assassinations whose purposes and evidence remain mysterious in the public eye — and suspicious to most people.
Best-known among assassination conspiracy theories in the United States are those dealing with a rash of seemingly politically motivated deaths in the 1960s, notably those of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Investigations and scientific testing and recreations into the circumstances of John F. Kennedy's death have not settled the question of who killed him. That U.S. public opinion considers this still to be an open issue is suggested by three polls in 2003. An ABC News random telephone poll found that just 32% (plus or minus 3%) of Americans believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, while 68% do not believe Oswald acted alone.  The "Discovery Channel" poll (sampling method not given) reveals that only 21% believe Oswald acted alone, while 79% do not believe Oswald acted alone.  The "History Channel" poll (self-selected responses) details that only 17% of respondents believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, while 83% do not believe Oswald acted alone.  It should, however, be noted that opinion polls of this type are often subject to selection and response biases.
Similar theories have arisen around the assassination of Beatle John Lennon and the attempted assassination of U.S. President Ronald Reagan. In recent years conspiracy theories about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales have made headlines.
Last updated: 10-19-2005 09:36:54