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The best books on Assassination

recommended by Lindsay Porter

Lindsay Porter, author and cultural historian who has published widely on conspiracy theories, discusses five books on the different concepts of politically motivated killing and asks whether assassination can ever by justified

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Lindsay Porter

Lindsay Porter, author and cultural historian, has published widely on conspiracy theories and secret societies. She is currently researching conspiracies in the French Revolution at the University of York. In her book, Assassination: A History of Political Murder, she asks what Julius Caesar’s death meant to the Romans, whether assassination can ever be justified, and why the circumstances surrounding the killing of John F Kennedy continue to haunt our collective consciousness.

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Your first choice is Political Murder: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism.

This is the most historically far-reaching of all the books I’ve chosen, and raises interesting questions about the causes of assassination and the different attitudes surrounding it during different time periods and in different cultures. Although the book is organised chronologically, beginning with Classical Antiquity, and looking at notions of vengeance and judgment in the Bible, it continuously raises comparisons across time and place, whilst avoiding what the author describes as ‘laboured’ historical analogies. The result is always challenging and thought-provoking.

Ford looks at three different concepts of politically motivated killing in this book – with the broadest being political murder (from the specifically targeted to random killings), assassination and then, specifically, tyrannicide. He explores the origins and definition of the word ‘assassination’ and how that has evolved.

The word is thought to have its origins in the Ismaili Muslim sect, the Hashishin, operating in the Middle East from 1090 to 1272, a sect which operated with a great deal of secrecy, including murder of political opponents. The Crusaders then picked up on it and the Hashashin gained a reputation for ruthless, covert killing. Marco Polo elaborated on the myth, describing a potent and irresistible blend of drugs and sex, in which recruits were drugged and promised an afterlife full of young maidens in exchange for unquestioning fealty. The notion of the assassin as working covertly, often as a result of a plot or conspiracy, had pretty much taken root by the 14th century.

Equally important with the evolution of the idea of assassination are the debates about the justification for politically motivated killing, and any study of assassination will look at the different philosophical debates trying to justify tyrannicide. A significant treatise debating the rights and wrongs of tyrannicide, Policraticus, was written by John of Salisbury, Thomas Becket’s clerk. One would expect a theologian to argue against any kind of murder, but John of Salisbury was responding to a debate that had been going on since antiquity, arguing the rights and wrongs of murdering a tyrant. A tyrant was defined as such either by the manner or his rule, or the means by which he had gained his power (tyrannus in regimine or tyrannus in titula). For John of Salisbury and many of his peers, God was the highest authority: if the king was against the law of God, his assassination was justifiable.

Tell me about the assassination of Henri IV book.

[Editor’s note: this interview was published in 2010]

Coincidentally, the 400th anniversary of this assassination has just passed – the event happened 14 May 1610 and the French are making a big deal of commemorating it. Henri was a fascinating king, uniting France by his conversion to Catholicism, ending a period of extreme religious turmoil and responsible for the Edict of Nantes, granting formerly unheard of rights to Huguenots until it was revoked by his grandson Louis XIV.

He was, by all accounts, charming, witty, intelligent, and had a very colourful personal life, twice married, many mistresses, that kind of thing. He was also responsible for a lot of the city planning in Paris, including the beautiful Place des Vosges. Following his death a contemporary diarist described the city going into a ‘frenzy of mourning’ with much tearing of clothes and public wailing. I grew very fond of Henri IV while I was researching this book.

The great controversy about Henri was that he was originally a Huguenot at a time when there was great religious strife in France, so the idea of a Huguenot on the throne was unthinkable. His conversion to Catholicism was an attempt to unite the country, (his famous but probably apocryphal quip that ‘Paris is well worth a mass’ reveals the depth of his faith). There were up to 16 attempts on his life but, of course, only the last one was successful, by a religious fanatic who believed Henri to be a heretic who should not be on the throne. That, according to the classical definition, he was a tyrant by usurpation. The Huguenot minority were disappointed by his conversion, the Catholic majority suspicious of it, and Henri himself had such a tenuous claim to the throne – he was something bizarre like the 17th cousin of the previous king, if that’s possible ­– no wonder he had so many enemies.

Who killed him?

François Ravaillac. He was quite a pathetic character who had had a difficult and miserable life.

Aren’t they all?

Yes! Although he wasn’t the only one to question Henri’s right to sit on the throne. Ravaillac himself was very devout in the first place, but then his devotion became fanatical. He joined a very austere order, the Feuillants, but was asked to leave because he was too extreme; he was too into all his scourging and physical mortification. I mean, if you join an extreme sect and they ask you to go…

He was not balanced. Later, he tried to join the Jesuits, and was turned down on the basis he had already been a member of the Feuillants. By this time he was having religious visions. Rather touchingly, one of the Jesuit brothers suggested what he really needed was a good night’s sleep and better food. It makes you wonder how many religious visions were really a result of malnutrition and physical deprivation.

How did he do it?

If it were a Victor Hugo novel you’d think it was a bit far-fetched. Henri IV was moving through Paris in a cumbersome carriage pulled by six horses and it got stuck at a crossroads near what is now the Place des Innocents, in the Les Halles area of Paris. Ironically, this crossroads was going to be Henri’s next project – widening it to improve traffic flow. Anyway, Ravaillac was able to approach the carriage and stab him.

By this time he had been having visions telling him to kill the king, and he had tried to gain an audience with him on more than one occasion with that aim in mind. Henri was taken to the Louvre but pronounced dead on arrival. Obviously, Ravaillac was immediately apprehended and executed in the most horrible way. Interestingly, he was convicted of parricide and not tyrannicide, which says a lot about the position of the monarch in French society.

How was he executed?

Well, the hand that had stabbed Henri was cut off and the stump dipped in boiling lead. There was a contemporary belief that the limb that carried out the crime could somehow be possessed, and was punished separately. Then he was hanged until he was nearly dead, drawn and quartered very slowly…

The sentence said that his soul must leave his body drop by drop. It was a ritualised killing and what he endured was specifically tailored to his deed. Amazingly, he remained conscious through most of the ordeal. It really is unthinkable.

Tell us about Murdering McKinley.

President McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by Leon Czolgosz, a self-confessed anarchist, who approached McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, with his hand wrapped in a handkerchief that concealed a gun. He was immediately apprehended and would have been beaten to death by the crowd had the police not intervened.

As he was strapped into the electric chair he made a dramatic, 11th hour statement: ‘I killed the president because he was the enemy of the good people! I did it for the help of the good people, the working men of all countries!’

This book looks at how the subsequent administration of Theodore Roosevelt responded to the assassination and the questions it raised about the working classes and immigrant labour, questions that had never been addressed before. Of course, the assassination also fed into and exacerbated the fear of European anarchists and led to a clampdown on all potentially radical activity. But Rauchway also examines how the McKinley assassination forced opinion makers to confront the question of nature versus nurture, and question whether an increasingly urbanised society contributes to creating troubled citizens. Intriguingly, too, Rauchway looks at how this fed into the anarchists’ idea that capitalism was damaging to the common labourer while benefiting the wealthy few.

Now we’ve got The Kennedy Assassination.

This event has spawned something like 3,000 books and is a never-ending industry of its own. It all began with people questioning the initial reports.

Why did they question the reports?

Because no one could believe that a loser like Lee Harvey Oswald could have done it alone. Most people suspected that it was a Communist plot, or the work of a right-wing nut. Jackie Kennedy herself expressed dismay that Kennedy hadn’t been killed over civil rights, but by some ‘silly little Communist’. There was a huge disconnect in the public mind between the paragon that was Kennedy and the nobody that was Oswald.

“There was a huge disconnect in the public mind between the paragon that was Kennedy and the nobody that was Oswald.”

Interestingly, with the publication of the Warren Commission, nearly a year after the assassination, the vast majority of the American public believed the official report. That changed by the time the Zapruder film footage was televised. Many people think it was televised at the time of the assassination, but it wasn’t shown until 1975. The Zapruder film is a very unreadable bit of footage – the editor of Life magazine, who published a few carefully selected stills from the film at the time of the assassination, says of it: ‘Depending on your point of view, it proves almost anything you want it to prove.’

It’s horrible to see Jackie Kennedy crawling out of the car.

Yes, that’s such a harrowing detail. She said she had no recollection of doing it, yet she was trying to retrieve a piece of his skull. She was obviously in a state of extreme trauma. When the film was shown on television the presenters described what was being shown, and when someone tells you what to see you see it. This was a time, around Watergate, when trust in the government was at an all-time low so that people believed that any official line must be untrue.

So people did believe the official version before 1975, did they?

Yes, most people. People thought Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist and, if not a lone gunman, then acting as part of a greater group of Communists. The idea of a huge government conspiracy hadn’t entered people’s minds. I think when the Warren Commission Report appeared after a year it had almost too much information in it – it is 26 volumes long and almost inevitably peppered with contradictions.

After Watergate everyone had begun to pick holes in things. Knight talks, for example, about the conspiracy theories around the autopsy report and points out that this procedure was carried out under great duress, that human error rather than cover-up produced discrepancies. Nowadays if you look at the material and at the minutiae – it’s such a parallel universe. But this is a very readable and clear-headed book about how the assassination has been represented and incorporated into other things. Popular opinion today has 75 per cent of people believing that there was a cover-up – that’s phenomenally high.

You presumably don’t think there was a cover-up?

I don’t subscribe to most of those conspiracy theory beliefs, no. I think Oswald probably acted alone and if he didn’t it wasn’t a massive thing that takes in the Mafia and Castro. More interesting is the question of why the assassination has so captured the American imagination, from Andy Warhol to Oliver Stone.

Your next choice is a government report.

Yes. The Church Committee Interim Report. It documents CIA involvement in plans to assassinate foreign leaders during the 1960s, including Patrice Lumumba, the Diem brothers, Rafael Trujillo, René Schneider and Fidel Castro, and is an internal investigation that was part of an attempt to appear to be coming clean at a time when the US government was seen as being anything but clean. Among other things it looks at Operation Mongoose, which absolutely beggars belief.

This is the Castro thing?

Yes. But you have to remember that this is an internal government report, and the actual ideas to assassinate or discredit Castro are like something from a Boy’s Own annual. Among one of the plans was to plant a box of exploding cigars at a state dinner.

And did they?

No. These were all potential plans. Castro was a keen scuba diver and they were going to plant an explosive shell underwater, for him to find while diving. I mean, it was stuff that a ten-year-old might dream up.

Why not just kill him? I’ve never understood this.

Well, the US government couldn’t be seen to be doing such a thing overtly. The point to remember about these foreign assassination plots is that the question never seemed to arise as to whether it was right or wrong, but whether, if the US government were involved in such a thing, it helps or hinders: will it discredit the United States? There is no debate about whether this is a valid policy or not, which is interesting. Not until Gerald Ford, who stated categorically that his administration ‘has not and will not use such means as an instrument of foreign policy’.

One of the ideas to discredit Castro that the report documents, was to slip LSD into his drink before a big radio address, or somehow administer depilatory cream to make his beard fall out, to make him appear ridiculous in front of the Cuban people. Silly, silly frat boy schemes and they are all written up in this report. The report also attempts to establish the extent to which the CIA was involved in assassinations like Patrice Lumumba’s in Congo – if they didn’t actually pull the trigger but just encouraged those that did. It’s really interesting reading.

Finally, tell me about your book, Assassination: A History of Political Murder.

My book looks at seven different assassinations starting with Caesar and ending with JFK.

As terrorism, it is the most extreme form, or the most effective, isn’t it?

Well, I don’t know. After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Disraeli said: ‘Assassination has never changed the history of the world.’ It’s like an essay question – discuss. Cicero said about Caesar: ‘The tyrant has gone but the tyranny remains.’ The question is – is one person that much of a linchpin? Will the regime crumble? How often in history has the assassin produced the result he was looking for?

Doesn’t it depend on whether or not the regime is a cult of personality?

I think it depends on the aims of the assassin. Are they going for complete regime change or, like some terrorists, is it an attempt to grab attention? That’s what we all go back and forth about – I mean, if the purpose is to make people fearful then it works. In ancient times, if Caesar is the state and you remove him then you have a different state.

“The question is: is one person that much of a linchpin? Will the regime crumble? How often in history has the assassin produced the result he was looking for?”

But then, with the development of dynamite and the rise of anarchism in the 19th century, it is possible to kill on a larger scale and at a remove. The assassin is no longer caught with the dagger in his hand, like Ravaillac, for example, who knew in killing the king he would be immediately apprehended. Instead of targeting an individual as a symbol of the state, more abstract symbols can be targeted: the stock exchange, a bank, or a café with a particular clientele. Whether the enterprise can be judged ‘successful’ depends on the perpetrator’s aims.

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Lindsay Porter

Lindsay Porter, author and cultural historian, has published widely on conspiracy theories and secret societies. She is currently researching conspiracies in the French Revolution at the University of York. In her book, Assassination: A History of Political Murder, she asks what Julius Caesar’s death meant to the Romans, whether assassination can ever be justified, and why the circumstances surrounding the killing of John F Kennedy continue to haunt our collective consciousness.