Assassination: A History of Political Murder

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Like kissing
babies on the election trail, assassination is a political tactic
that does not go out of fashion, as Lindsay
Porter’s intriguing book
makes clear. It surveys political
murder from antiquity to the present, and seeks to understand assassination
as not only a political but also a cultural act.

Starting with
the murder of Julius Caesar in 44BC, Porter focuses on eight assassinations
(including those of Thomas Becket, Franz Ferdinand, Emiliano Zapata
and Pancho Villa, and JFK) and, through them, themes ranging from
Plutarchian justifiable tyrannicide and religious and political
skulduggery to nationalism tainted with anarchism, lone gunmen and
assassination as foreign policy.

Full of secret
societies, conspiracies, idealism and madness, at times the book
defies belief. Yes, the CIA really contemplated killing Castro with
an exploding cigar; little wonder that assassination has given rise
to so many unforgettable images and myths. In Porter’s telling,
assassination is slippery and mutable: the deed always escapes the
assassin’s attempts to define its meaning. Brutus, she points
out, was relegated by Dante to the last circle of hell with Judas
and Satan, yet was later rehabilitated, notably by Shakespeare.
Becket was for centuries a beloved martyr before his shrine was
destroyed by Henry VIII. The most telling story, however, is of
Jean-Paul Marat’s assassin, Charlotte Corday, whose executioner
was jailed for slapping the cheek of her newly guillotined head.
In killing her, the court deplored Marat’s death; in sentencing
the executioner, it was perversely recognising the purity of her
act. There is a fine line between abhorrence and respect.

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13, 2010

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