Assassination. Is it just a fancy word for murder? And specifically for murder when the victim is a high-profile political figure? Does the word in itself become a way of emphasising some special significance to the victim and some special tragedy about their death? These are not questions posed directly in Lindsay Porter’s book Assassination: A History of Political Murder, but they lurk as the subtext.
Porter leads the reader through assassinations from that of Julius Caesar to that of Jack Kennedy. En route she describes and analyses the contexts of the killings of Thomas Beckett, Henri IV of France, Jean-Paul Marat (the firebrand of the French Revolution), Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the Mexican bandit heroes Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. The whole is lavishly illustrated – before photography, artists and their patrons loved a good assassination.
Porter notes how in the classical world there was debate about the virtue and necessity of killing a tyrant. These debates continued in the early modern period when the issue was clouded by the clash between Catholic and Protestant; Henri IV’s preparedness to exchange Protestantism for Catholicism made him a marked man for the fundamentalist Catholic François Ravaillac. Charlotte Corday’s decision to kill Marat appears to have been spurred by her familiarity with classical debates and, good Catholic girl that she was, she may also have found a role model in the biblical heroine, Judith.
Porter suggests that, in the 19th century, assassins began to choose their victims not necessarily for what they did, but rather more for what they represented: for the anarchists the enemy was ultimately capitalism and the bourgeoisie; the nationalist chose anyone that might be labelled a significant representative of the oppressors of his people.
But how far was the change of targets also equally the result of pragmatism? It was becoming increasingly difficult to get close to a major personage; a bomb could do the trick, and if it also killed a lot of other people then the rationale became that a bombing was a terror blow against the system. Yet the model for assassination by bomb could surely be found at the beginning of the century with the ‘infernal machine plot’ against Napoleon, or even earlier with Guy Fawkes.
Zapata and Villa are interesting case studies, but seem odd choices for inclusion. Both were killed by semi-official agents, something that prefigures Porter’s discussion of the bizarre plots of some CIA cowboys in the 1960s and 1970s, but which she does not follow through in precisely this way. Their deaths probably fit better alongside those of other bandit heroes, and in contrast it might have been more relevant to explore the Mafia’s killing of Judge Falcone in 1992 and the repercussions for the Italian state.
But then there have been so many assassinations; who to include, and who to omit in such a book becomes a problem. In Assassination: A History of Political Murder, Porter quotes Disraeli’s comment following the murder of Abraham Lincoln: “Assassination has never changed the history of the world”. Sadly, this has never stopped people from trying.
Clive Emsley is author of The Great British Bobby: A History of British Policing from the 18th Century to the Present (Quercus, 2009)