Another in the Long Volley of Shots Heard 'Round the World

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Countess Sophie, moments before they were shot dead in a single act that set in motion the events of World War I.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Countess Sophie, moments before they were shot dead in a single act that set in motion the events of World War I. (Associated Press)
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By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 28, 2007

Benazir Bhutto's father was prime minister of Pakistan in the 1970s and, before he was hanged, he would tell her to study the lives of great women as inspiration. She sometimes told reporters that story, including the names of Joan of Arc and Indira Gandhi as study subjects suggested by her dad. The French revolutionary was burned at the stake; the Indian prime minister was assassinated by her bodyguards.

Their violent ends did not deter Bhutto, nor did the murders of her father and brother. A Harvard graduate with a sharp knowledge of history, she would have known that The Assassination has been around a lot longer than the ballot and is often more influential.

The Assassination is almost universally denigrated as a "cowardly act" (as President Bush described Bhutto's killing yesterday). But the historical record shows it to be a dramatic, low-cost, highly symbolic means of communication -- and murder -- that disaffected people use to try to dramatically sway national or even international affairs.

It can work or backfire or just disappear, like a bloody drop in a bucket. Pakistan will be unstable in the coming days, as it has been in the past and will be again. Who can say if Bhutto's slaying is the pinball that leads to destruction, the painful agent of positive change, or just a killing, like most, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing more than murderous nihilism?

The descent into regional conflagration could have been triggered "by 'shock and awe' in Iraq, or the assassination of [prime minister Rafik] Hariri in Lebanon in 2005, or Israel's battles with Hezbollah," says Mustafa Aksakal, assistant professor of history at American University, who is writing a book about the Ottoman Empire's descent into World War I. "But the region has so far been able to absorb these shocks. It's just impossible to say what will be the straw that breaks the camel's back."

"Anyone who thinks they can predict the consequences of a political assassination is a damn fool," says Eric Rauchway, author of "Murdering McKinley: The Making of Teddy Roosevelt's America" and a history professor at the University of California, Davis. "All it provides is an opportunity. However, the opportunity it provides is often not one the assassin intended."

This has been true from the Ides of March forward.

Did Marcus Junius Brutus, when he pulled out his blade to join in the murder of his one-time friend Julius Caesar, understand that his actions would produce (a) perhaps the most famous and influential political assassinations in western history; (b) one of the immortal lines of betrayal -- "Et tu, Brute?" -- that echoes in the cultural id more than 2,000 years later; (c) his own ignominy and suicide?

On the evening of Jan. 30, 1948, a radical Hindu newspaper editor named Nathuram Godse pulled out a pistol and approached a little old man on his way to prayer service. In the instant before he pulled the trigger, he certainly intended to kill Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, at whom he was enraged for his role in the partition of India and Pakistan. But did he know that by so doing he would turn the diminutive weaver of cotton into the "Father of India" and a global icon of nonviolent resistance?

But these killings were nothing close to the most murderously effective. The dubious title goes to Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian nationalist.

Standing at a stone bridge in Sarajevo in late June 1914, Princip shot Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand (and his wife) to demonstrate that he and his compatriots wanted to be freed of the constraints of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and to join neighboring Serbia. What did he know? He was scarcely 20 years old.

But his act of assassination worked; it led to Austria pulling out of Bosnia. The collateral damage was that it ignited World War I.

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