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

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.

In the next four years, some 16 nations lost more than 10 million lives, twice that many were wounded, the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, Germany was humiliated in defeat (laying the groundwork for the rise of Hitler, World War II and the Holocaust) and America was launched into world prominence.

Princip's pistol also led to the creation of Yugoslavia, which led to the destruction of Yugoslavia, which led to another war involving ethnic Serbs in Bosnia, which led to mass murder of Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, which led to U.S. troops landing in a place called Tuzla, which led to war crimes tribunals and the imprisonment and subsequent death of the Serbian president who had started the war on ethnic nationalism.

Moving south, if one wants the short course on why peace in the Middle East is so elusive, just look up "Nobel Peace Prize," followed by "assassination."

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat won that award in 1978, along with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, for their peace agreement, the Camp David Accords. That lasted for three years, until Muslim fundamentalists stormed a parade route and shot Sadat to death.

Thirteen years later, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (and colleague Shimon Peres) shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin's mortal enemy, Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat. The two men had, mostly in secret, brokered a peace agreement (the Oslo Accords) that promised to have a transformative effect on the Middle East. But it was largely an agreement between two men, not two nations. One Israeli law student thought that Rabin, a soldier who had defended Israel almost his entire adult life, was "giving our country to the Arabs." He took it upon himself to shoot and kill Rabin.

The Oslo Accords withered and died.

And, of course, there is the United States, where roughly one out of every 11 presidents have been assassinated, where Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Martin Luther King followed the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and was, of course, shot in the head at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

American assassination has been of titanic import. Lincoln's changed the course of the country. His assassination spot at Ford's Theater is a national landmark, and there is the Lincoln Monument on the Mall, not to mention his likeness on the penny and the $5 bill. John F. Kennedy's assassination . . . oh. You've heard.

It's also been almost inconsequential. Just 16 years after Lincoln was killed, James Garfield was assassinated at a train station a few hundred yards from Ford's Theatre. That building, never designated anything, was torn down 99 years ago. The site eventually became the National Gallery of Art and today, not even a plaque marks the spot. The sole reminder of the event is Garfield's unobtrusive statue at the base of Capitol Hill.

In 1998, the U.S. Justice Department published something called the "Exceptional Case Study Project," as part of a threat assessment guide for law enforcement officials. The study reviewed the historical record back to 1835 and surveyed "the thinking and behavior of all 83 persons known to have attacked or approached to attack a prominent public official or figure in the United States from 1949 to 1996."

They fit no one profile, authors Robert A. Fein and Bryan Vossekuil found. Some had political beliefs, some were just nuts. The serious ones kept their mouths shut: "None of the 43 assassins and attackers communicated a direct threat to the target before their attack."

And some, perhaps like the person or people who killed Bhutto yesterday, wanted to "save the country or the world; to fix a world problem."

How seldom it works out that way.

Researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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