See - "Do Assassins Really Change History?" Are they trying to prepare us for something?
Days after John Wilkes Booth entered the presidential box at Ford’s Theater and shot Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister, declared that “assassination has never changed the history of the world.” Was Disraeli right?
One view, the “great man” theory, claims that individual leaders play defining roles, so that assassinating one could lead to very different national or global outcomes. In contrast, historical determinism sees leaders as the proverbial ant riding the elephant’s back. Broader social, economic and political forces drive history, so that assassinations may not have meaningful effects.
Prominent examples of assassinations raise intriguing questions, but do not settle the matter. Would the Vietnam War have escalated if John F. Kennedy had not been killed? Would the Middle East peace process have proceeded more successfully if Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel had not been assassinated?
For any given individual historical episode, it is hard to know for sure. But averaging over many such examples, statistics can begin to provide a guide.
To better understand the role of assassinations in history, we collected data on all assassination attempts on national leaders from 1875 to 2004, both those that killed the leader and those that failed. There’s a lot of data: Since 1950, a national leader was assassinated in almost two out of every three years. (Today’s leaders may rest considerably easier than those in the early 20th century, when a given leader was about twice as likely to be killed as now.)
Assassination attempts are more common in larger countries, where there is a larger potential pool of assassins, and in countries at war. A country with the population of the United States is 75 percent more likely to experience an assassination attempt than a country with a population the size of Switzerland’s.
Assassins are often inaccurate, and their victims are usually bystanders. Even if the gun is fired or the bomb actually explodes, the intended target is killed less than 25 percent of the time. Bombs prove especially inaccurate, rarely killing the leader while causing substantial collateral damage, killing an average of six bystanders and wounding 18.
A leader’s survival can depend on remarkable twists of fate. Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator, reportedly survived an assassination attempt in which a live grenade bounced off his chest and killed or wounded several people in a crowd nearby. Kennedy did not escape the bullet that killed him, even though it was fired from 265 feet away and he was in a moving car. But President Ronald Reagan survived being shot at close range, as John Hinckley Jr.’s bullet punctured his lung but stopped just short of his heart.
Perhaps the most remarkable of all historical cases was Adolf Hitler’s survival of an assassination attempt in a Munich beer hall in 1939. Had Hitler lingered 13 minutes longer, he most likely would have been killed by a time bomb that destroyed the podium where he had just spoken and that killed seven people. Why did he depart? Bad weather. Fog grounded his flight back to Berlin, so Hitler left early to catch the train.
The seeming randomness in leaders’ fates may help shed light on the role of assassinations in history. We compared the 59 assassination attempts in our data that happened to succeed with 192 close calls that happened to fail.
We found that assassinations do have an effect on political systems, but with caveats. For one, the effects are largely limited to autocracies. On average, the deaths of autocrats have prompted moves toward democracy, which appear 13 percentage points more likely than when following failed attempts. Democracies, in contrast, appear robust: The deaths of democratic leaders do not lead to a slide into autocracy.
Assassinations can also change the path of war. For countries in moderate conflicts, with fewer than 1,000 battle deaths, assassinations feed the flames, as these conflicts are more likely to intensify. On the other hand, for countries already in intense conflicts, assassinations of leaders appear more likely than failed attempts to bring the war to a close.
Failed attempts themselves may change outcomes; an autocrat who survives an assassination attempt may crack down on opposition groups, leading a country further from democracy. Our data are consistent with this “intensifying autocracy” effect. Assassination attempts on autocrats thus bring considerable risk: They appear to increase the chance of democratization if the attempt succeeds, but lessen it in the far more likely event that the attempt fails.
From Caesar to Lincoln, many leaders have met violent ends — and many others narrowly escaped assassination. Ethics and law put enormous restraint on state-sponsored assassination, though lone gunmen may be hard to eliminate altogether. The historical evidence is that assassinations do matter when targeting autocrats, but they primarily bring risk. Twists of fate may have large influences on history — yet by their nature they remain outside our control.