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The Assassin’s False Creed

Assassinations are, in almost every case, desperate gambles, usually carried out not by statesmen but by committed ideologues. US President Donald Trump may be neither, but there is no reason to believe that the targeted killing of Qassem Suleimani will be more than an empty – if ultimately very costly – gesture.

MOSCOW – For an armchair warrior like US President Donald Trump, who received five deferments from serving in Vietnam, assassinations must look like a foreign-policy silver bullet. You take out your enemy’s leadership with a drone strike or a rifle shot and, presto, your problems are solved. In fact, there is no historical basis for believing that assassinations solve anything. But there are plenty of precedents that they make things far, far worse.

Assassinations are, in almost every case, desperate gambles, usually carried out not by statesmen but by committed ideologues. This has been clear at least since the “golden age” of the assassin – Europe and America in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. During these decades, anarchists murdered two US presidents (James A. Garfield and William McKinley), a Russian czar (Alexander II), a Habsburg empress (Elisabeth, wife of Franz Joseph I), an Italian king (Umberto I), a French president (Sadi Carnot), and two Spanish premiers (Antonio Cánovas del Castillo and José Canalejas y Méndez).

The two great heroes of this movement of anarcho-assassins, Mikhail Bakunin and Prince Petr Kropotkin, were Russians, which is not surprising. After all, in the words of an anonymous Russian diplomat of the time, quoted by Georg Herbert zu Münster, nineteenth-century Russia could be described as “absolutism tempered by assassination.” Bakunin and Kropotkin both embraced assassination, which they called “the propaganda of the deed,” or, as the Harvard cultural historian Maya Jasanoff more correctly called it in her luminous study The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, “propaganda by dynamite.”

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