Sunday, 21 April 2013

Let them live, however vile

Nearly two thousand years ago, a group of aristocrats decided to defend the privileges that they and their ancestors had enjoyed for centuries, by striking down the military leader who seemed intent on putting an end to them.

On 15 March 44 BC, they mobbed Julius Caesar in the Roman forum and stabbed him to death. The assassination sealed their own destruction in the civil war that followed, along with the end of the republic they had been so keen to defend. For self-fulfilling prophecy, to say nothing of own-goals, the assassination of Julius Caesar is right up there with the all-time greats.

Just under a century and a half ago, a mediocre actor achieved far greater fame than he ever could on stage, by bursting into Abraham Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre and shooting him in the head. To crown his act, John Wilkes Booth shouted ‘sic semper tyrannis’, the words Brutus is said to have proclaimed after killing Caesar, to signal that all tyrants would die. 

John Wilkes Booth.
May not have been much of an actor, but I wish he'd stuck to it.
As it happens, anyone less like a tyrant than Lincoln would be hard to imagine: his consummate skill was in persuading, cajoling or indeed buying (as the recent film Lincoln showed) enough support to compromise his way to success.

How might things have been, in the counter-factual hypothesis that Lincoln had survived? We can’t know, of course, but I guess that we might not have had to wait until Franklin Roosevelt to see a president re-elected to a third or fourth term of office. What effect that might have had on Lincoln and his commitment to good government and democratic principle it’s hard to say.

More significant would have been the effect on post-civil war reconstruction. My suspicion is that the reintegration of the southern States would have been quicker and more complete, and on the basis of a more rigorous equality among races. The fourteenth amendment freeing slaves was passed in 1865; a century later, their descendants were still battling – in many cases literally – for their civil rights. A lot of bloodshed might have been avoided.

So those were two successful assassinations that were wholly unsuccessful in achieving any useful aim.

On the other hand, there have been assassinations successfully avoided. For instance, late in the Second World War, the British Special Operations Executive launched a plan to murder Hitler. Who opposed these action men, the blowers-up of bridges, the killers of officials in occupied territory? The more established agents of conventional intelligence with their cooler heads. Why? They believed any replacement would run German military power more effectively than Hitler, lengthening the war and making victory less sure.

SOE: Bravest of the brave, but a little misguided over Hitler?
Why am I dealing with such morbid issues? Blame my youngest son Nicky who criticised me for talking too much about the natural death of Maggie Thatcher, having promised to stay silent on the subject. He insisted that I spend some time on violent political deaths, to make up for my inconsistency. 

As an inhabitant of Madrid, he’s particularly well placed to make that demand. I first got to know Spain well in the early nineties. Already then, I had trouble remembering that the country had been under the thumb of a thoroughly vile dictator, though he had died less than twenty years earlier. Indeed, in between, there had been the 1981 attempt by Antonio Tejero, latter-day John Wilkes Booth, to seize power by an armed attack on parliament. Friends in Barcelona described that terrible night in 1981, as they drove about the city to track each other down and try to decide what to do: to wait, to fight, to fly? But then in the small hours, the King finally broke his silence, and called out the army to put down the few rebel units, which it duly did, and the coup was over.

Antonio Tejero: misguided, wrong and thankfully a complete failure

So Spain was a strong enough democracy to resist even an armed attack.

Now would it have been the same had Franco been assassinated? That’s another counter-factual, but again I have little doubt over the broad outlines: Franco would have become a martyr, the far right would have been revived,  crushing repression would have been imposed and many opposition figures murdered or worse. I’m not at all sure that Spain would have been a democracy even today.

Killing an individual leader, however evil or incompetent, seems seldom to produce the desired result. Sometimes, as in the case of Hitler or Franco, it’s best to learn some patience and wait: the effect seems far more profound and longer-lasting.

That’s a lesson the West would do well to learn. There was such celebration over the execution of Saddam Hussein, but might he not have been dead by now anyway? Would things have been much worse? Or rather, when we look around the bloody, Iranian-dominated state Iraq has become, might they not have been a great deal better?

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