On political assassination

01:00 Mon 15th Jul 2002 |

Chirac: target
A man is arrested in Paris for attempting to shoot France's President Chirac by the Arc de Triomphe during the Bastille Day celebrations. Sadly, this is by no means an isolated incident in the political landscape. The question might well be: who will be next

Pim Fortuyn, a rightwing, anti-immigration candidate for the Dutch General election was shot six times in the head and chest outside a radio station in May. Marco Biagi, a leading Italian political figure, was killed in March; in that country killings associated with the Red Brigades have haunted politics for decades.

The assassination of the Israeli Tourism Minister, Rehavam Zeevi, last October prompted a dramatic escalation of violence between the state of Israel and the Palestinians held responsible for the killing.

Is this a new phenomenon
Until the death of Fortuyn, no leading European politician had been shot since Sweden's Olof Palme in 1986. Former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped, held for 55 days and then killed by Red Brigade terrorists in 1978. Going back still further, it was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a militant Serb in 1914 that precipitated the Great War.

What about in France itself
Firstly, don't read too much into comparisons with Frederick Forsyth's in The Day Of The Jackel (in which the French President is targeted during the Bastille Day celebrations by a lone gunman with a rifle...) as the book isn't well-known at all in France. There's no suggestion that the alleged gunman knew of the book.

However, Forsyth's story was based on the violent opposition to President de Gaulle of France's OAS (Organization de l'Arme secrete - a group of disillusioned army veterans and serving officers), which culminated in a bungled assassination attempt in 1962. His car was ambushed by a machinegun-toting Lieutenant-Colonel named Bastien-Thiry but, like Chirac, the President escaped unharmed.

What about the United Kingdom
The bomb and bullet dominated Northern Irish politics for many years. Senior politicians were targeted from time to time - John Major and Margaret Thatcher both escaped attempts on their lives while Prime Minister. Airey Neave was killed by an INLA car bomb outside the House of Commons in 1979. However, no Prime Minister has been killed since Spencer Perceval was shot in the House of Commons in May, 1812.

There are many more guns in the USA
... and many more assassinations. Assassins have targeted nine American Presidents - Andrew Jackson in 1835, Abraham Lincoln (1865), James Garfield (1881), William McKinley (1901), Harry S. Truman (1950), John F. Kennedy (1963), Richard Nixon (1974), Gerald Ford (twice in 1975) and Ronald Reagan (1981). Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy were all killed - as were, in the turbulent 1960s, Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X.

The US must hate the very idea of political assassination
Well you might think so. However, the US administration has only recently owned up to a political assassination attempt of its own (they missed their intended target). In May 2002 the CIA launched an anti-tank missile aimed squarely at Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, former Afghan Prime Minister and, though not linked to the September 11th atrocities, a potential challenger to the current Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. President Bush was given the chance to deny it was an assassination attempt, but replied: "I can assure you when we go after individuals in the theatre of war, it's because they intend to do some harm to America."

So: assassination as a tool of US foreign policy...
Foreign leaders, amongst them Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro and Slobodan Milosevic, have all turned the threat -- or alleged threat -- of US assassins into a propaganda weapon of their own. The extent to which US forces really did try to blow up Castro with a cigar is debatable but it appears that 'Operation Mongoose' looked at it - not to mention the use of a poisoned wetsuit, a Mob contract and even hair removal powder (to ridicule him in the face of his countrymen!)

Some would say the bullet is not just a tool of foreign affairs. The mysterious death of Clinton White House Deputy Counsel Vince Foster has long been termed an "assassination" by those on the American Right who remain set against Bill (and Hillary) Clinton, and refuse to accept the autopsy verdict of suicide.

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