Assassination Research Paper

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In the eleventh century the Shiite Ismaeli convert Hasan ibn-al-Sabbah (c. 1050–1124), ‘‘the Old Man of the Mountain,’’ appeared in Islamic Persia and for nearly fifty years led the struggle against both Sunni orthodoxy and Turkish rule. Persecuted and hunted, he established the mountain fortress of Alamut, which ‘‘became the greatest training center of fanatical politico-religious assassins that the world has known’’ (Franzius, p. 45). Hasan sent young men ( fidais, ‘‘devoted ones’’) singly or in small bands to kill military, political, and religious leaders aligned against him. Such was the suicidal fanaticism of Hasan’s skilled killers that it was widely believed they must be stimulated by hashish. They were called ‘‘hashish-eaters,’’ apparently shortened in Arabic usage to Assassins, which may also connote Asasi (‘‘followers of the Asas,’’ the true teacher) and perhaps in addition, ‘‘followers of Hasan’’ (Franzius, pp. 47–48).

Defining Assassination

In time, assassin came generally to mean one who killed an unsuspecting victim without warning, but the original sense of political purpose was never quite lost, and has become increasingly strong. To assassinate is to kill for a political reason—to secure or resist authority, to eliminate a rival for power, to prevent or avenge a political defeat, or to express a political grievance.

Political motivation distinguishes assassination from other deadly interpersonal violence. Unfortunately for analytic rigor, motivation is extremely difficult to establish. Indeed, after a useful discussion of the problem, Havens, Leiden, and Schmitt remarked at the end of their research that ‘‘perhaps attempts to determine motives are irrelevant, for once the act has been committed the public manufactures its own motive in harmony with its own political predilections’’ (p. 150). Political motives, like others, are often hidden or unclear, and cannot merely be inferred from the political significance or prominence of a target (Kirkham, Levy, and Crotty). Heads of state may be the victims of nonpolitical violence; ordinary citizens such as tourists may die as political surrogates or pawns. Nonetheless, it has been generally assumed that only attacks on important officials and other influential persons are politically inspired, and that common folk are too insignificant to draw the assassin’s fire. Both assumptions are questionable.

The meaning of the term political blurs as power concerns and struggles permeate society and as the interdependence and interpenetration of different loci and forms of authority increase. Any area of social life, from religion and education to industry and entertainment, can be politicized, serving as a base, vehicle, or object of power struggles. Whoever emerges as a leading figure may have, or be seen as having, political significance as actor or symbol, in the sense once associated almost exclusively with the leaders of governments and parties. Charismatic figures are especially likely to attract the attention of an established or aspiring power-wielder who sees the potential value and danger of anyone who sways others.

Contemporary justifications of assassination and terrorism began in nineteenth-century Russian anarchism and have led in their most extreme formulations to the conclusion that death is appropriate for all who live as ‘‘part of the problem’’—that is, who try to carry on a normal life instead of joining in the war to destroy the existing world system, which is increasingly seen as culturally, economically, and militarily dominated by the United States. In such terms, every killing is an assassination, serving the political aim of demonstrating that all are guilty until injustice (as defined by the motivating ideology) is eliminated from the world.

One major consequence is that the meaning of assassination shifts not only to include common as well as prominent people, but also to include the killing of many as well as of one or a few. Assassination finally becomes synonymous with terrorism—which may be understood as random violence whose specific victims are selected mostly by chance instead of design, irrespective of the varying innocence and political power of individuals.

The logic of terrorist theory thus leads to a concept of assassination in which the element of specification is ultimately dissolved. Of course, even terrorists find it necessary to make distinctions and set priorities. Dangerous adversaries must be distinguished from innocent bystanders. Opportunities must be weighed with regard to potential risks and benefits. Resources have to be matched to opportunities. Targets have to be selected with due regard for their tactical importance. All this suggests that assassination is characterized by selection rather than by specification. The point is that victims are selected because of the anticipated impact of the timing, place, or manner of their death. Their attributes as individuals may or may not be relevant concerns and, in any case, will be secondary ones. Their individuality is irrelevant as such, although particular attributes (e.g., their perceived nationality or race) may be assessed as enhancing or reducing their significance as potential victims. Because significance is not only or necessarily a function of power or prominence, children and other noncombatants may be targeted precisely because their destruction is expected to weaken or deter support for the opposition. Symbols, positions, and relationships—not people—are the real targets of assassination.

Although agreeing that assassination is politically motivated killing, Ben-Yehuda emphasizes the need to distinguish between assassination and terrorism. His view is that assassination is defined by the targeting of specific individuals, while terrorism is (as suggested above) indiscriminate killing aimed at a general target—a collectivity or population. As he recognizes, and as illustrated by several of the cases he analyzes, it is difficult to maintain the distinction. Attempted or successful assassinations of particular actors may harm others in addition to or instead of the intended targets. Nontargeted others may be deliberately harmed because they are trying to protect or assist the target, or because they are potential witnesses. Companions or bystanders may be mistakenly or inadvertently harmed. And mistakes may occur, as when an agent dispatched by the Israeli Mossad misidentified and killed an innocent Arab in Lillehamer, Norway. Finally, the number of targets or victims of assassination may vary from one to many—which suggests that there may be a point at which the number becomes so great that the line between specific and general targeting is impossible to draw. In sum, the distinction between assassination and terrorism is at best tactical or analytical, not one dictated by empirical observations.

Thus, the most realistic definition of assassination is that it is politically motivated killing in which victims are selected because of the expected political impact of their dying. The victims of assassination are generally assumed to be few and to be individually targeted. When there are many victims, who appear to have been randomly selected by the circumstances of their being in ‘‘the wrong place at the wrong time,’’ the event is more likely to be defined as terrorism than as assassination.

Assassination and The Law

The legal status of assassination is ambiguous in both domestic and international law. Killing or endangering the sovereign, members of the royal family, or chief representatives of the sovereign has always been abhorrent in English common law, and was formally defined as treason in the fourteenth century (‘‘Treason Act,’’ 25 Edw. 3, stat. 5, c. 2 (1351) (England)). The concept of treason has since been extended beyond personal fealty to include violence against the constitutional system by anyone having a duty of allegiance. The law of treason has, however, rarely been invoked (Law Commission). Indeed, the English legal system has been characterized by its nonrecognition of political offenses as such. Political motivation has been accorded scant consideration as even a mitigating factor, in contrast to the tradition established in continental legal systems. There is no recognized political defense in English law. Thus, assassination as a form of treason is extremely circumscribed, and most assassinations are treated as common law crimes without political import.

The United States, Canada, and some other nations formerly British-ruled follow the English model on this question. In the United States, Congress reacted in 1963 to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination by making it a federal offense punishable by death or life imprisonment to assassinate the president, president-elect, vice president, vice president-elect, or anyone legally acting as president (18 U.S.C. section 1751 (1976)). Subsequently, it was also made a federal offense to assassinate an incumbent or elected member of Congress. To war against the United States or to assist its enemies constitutes treason; and it is an offense to advocate the forcible or violent overthrow of the federal or any state government, or the assassination of any officer of such governments (18 U.S.C. sections 2381, 2385 (1976)). Otherwise, assassination is a common crime to be dealt with by the state or other government in whose jurisdiction it occurs.

Even though a common crime, the killing of officials—especially police officers and federal agents—has been dealt with increasingly as a special offense meriting more stringent penalties; and any killings or attacks by antigovernment militants receive special attention under laws such as the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statutes. Conviction in such cases typically results in significantly more severe sentencing (Smith). In effect, such homicides are perceived and treated as politically inspired—that is, as assassinations.

Until the nineteenth century the European monarchs generally agreed that regicide was intolerable, and considered the offender against government the most despicable of criminals. In 1833, Belgium initiated the doctrine that political offenders were not to be extradited. Most other nations followed suit, but the ensuing treaties typically required extradition of assassins and other violent offenders as common criminals unless their acts occurred in the course of a political disturbance or were ‘‘proportionate’’—that is, not excessive in view of the aims and circumstances of the act (Kittrie). Beginning with the reaction against late nineteenth-century anarchist violence, the political defense of assassination and other political violence has been increasingly unlikely to prevent extradition. In particular, war crimes and crimes against humanity are widely considered to be extraditable offenses. However, there have been many exceptional cases; and the international community remains sharply divided on how to define and deal with terrorist killings and other politically motivated violence.

The legal situation is, then, that assassination may be defined domestically as treason, an ‘‘allied offense,’’ or a common crime. Under international law, it may be defined as a nonextraditable political offense (albeit ‘‘complex’’ rather than ‘‘pure’’), as an extraditable common crime, or as a crime against humanity or against the laws of war. In both domestic and international law, the legal status of any particular assassination depends on the political concerns and relative power of the various authorities and of any private parties involved in or interested in its occurrence.

Causes and Patterns

How one approaches the problem of explaining assassination depends on one’s assumptions about political violence. If violence for political reasons is considered to be unusual and unjustifiable, the causes of assassination are expected to lie in the psychopathology of individual killers. If political violence is thought to be aberrant but sometimes justifiable, or at least understandable, causes are sought in threatening or oppressive social conditions, which in principle can be changed so as to eliminate the violence. If violence is seen as an intrinsic dimension and a common instrument of politics, causes are to be found in the varying fortunes and tactics of social groups attempting to defend or increase their life chances. A developed scientific theory of assassination presumably would avoid moral assumptions about political violence and would encompass all three causal sources, treating them as sets of variables whose interrelationships result in an increasing or decreasing probability of assassination events. No such theory yet exists. Toward that goal, the following hypotheses are to be considered: (1) The more threatening or oppressive social conditions are for a particular group the more likely the group is to resort to assassination and other forms of violence; (2) individuals with certain psychopathologic characteristics are more likely to be selected for the actual work of killing; alternatively, those selected develop psychopathological characteristics because of the guilt, isolation, fear, suffering, or other experiences associated with their ‘‘dirty work.’’

Oppression, Threat, and Assassination

Research on the social causes of assassination indicates that oppression is probably less important than threat in affecting the probability of assassination. Gross has defined oppression as ‘‘acts of physical brutality, including killing and limitation of freedom, humiliation of persons, economic exploitation, deprivation of elementary economic opportunities, confiscation of property’’ (p. 86). He suggests that even foreign domination causes assassination only if it is perceived as oppression, if a political party exists with ‘‘an ideology and tactics of direct action,’’ and if there are ‘‘activist personality types’’ ready to use violence (p. 89). Ethnic and nationalist conflicts appear to be far more important factors than socioeconomic conditions in encouraging assassination and other political violence. Political violence tends to be the work of higher-class visionaries and activists, in contrast to the lowerclass predatory types who engaged in ‘‘common criminal violence’’ (p. 93).

The most systematic available evidence concerning the linkage between socioeconomic conditions and assassination is found in a crossnational comparative study for the United States National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (Kirkham et al.). Assassination is associated with political instability, which in turn reflects such factors as a low level of socioeconomic development, a high level of relative deprivation, and a high rate of socioeconomic change. Other contributing factors are a government neither very coercive nor very permissive, and high levels of externalized aggression and hostility toward foreigners, among minority and majority groups, and among individuals, as indicated by high homicide and low suicide rates. The United States is exceptional in combining an advanced level of socioeconomic development with the other features. It is noted that African Americans and other major sectors of the population do generally live under conditions internally approximating those found to be associated with relatively high levels of political violence. The findings suggest that socioeconomic conditions must interact with political and cultural factors to become significant in causing assassination and other political violence.

It appears that oppression becomes causally relevant only when it is interpreted as threat, whereas perceived threat in itself is sufficient to encourage political violence. One major implication of this general proposition is that economic conditions must become political factors to affect the level of political violence. A further implication is that political conditions must be interpreted as threatening in order to be causally significant. The process of interpretation is, then, the key to creating situations in which the probability of assassination and other political violence is significantly increased.

Threats may be real whether or not perceived. For a group to have fewer resources while another has more implies a present or potential threat to the life chances of the disadvantaged. The greater the differences, the greater the likelihood that the more advantaged group is living in part at the expense of the less advantaged (assuming they are bound together economically and politically in a real, if not necessarily formal, sense). Certainly, the less advantaged live more precariously and are more vulnerable to life’s miseries. For them, it is not difficult to see or believe that inequality is threatening. At the same time, the more advantaged will readily see or believe that underclass discontent or gains are threatening. At any given moment, the available resources are finite; the pie cannot be shared without someone having less if another is to have more. Both sides are likely to feel threatened by change—particularly by high rates of socioeconomic change—because it is difficult to predict just who will win and who will lose in the course of events.

The perceived threat posed by existing or changing economic or political conditions does not of itself necessarily produce violence. What is required is that an enemy be identified and that potential assailants be mobilized. Historically, this last step has been accomplished by a campaign of vilification of visible members of a targeted group (government, party, class, religion, nationality, race, or ethnic category), as well as of the group as a whole (Gross; Kirkham et al.). Responsibility for the threatening economic or political conditions is placed squarely on the targeted individuals and groups, who are depicted as entirely reprehensible, irredeemably monstrous, and perhaps even subhuman.

Unchecked, vilification produces a climate of extremism because the targets of the campaign tend to respond in kind. In such a climate, some individuals experienced in using violence may be deliberately recruited as assassins (hired killers). Others ( political actors) may progress in stages of activism from minimal political involvement to the conclusion that assassination is tactically essential. Still others (expressive reactors) may simply be caught up in the excitement of political conflict, finding in the rhetoric of vilification a means and focus for expressing their discontent, perhaps in assassination. Although individual cases exhibit some overlap and movement among them, these types—hired killers, political actors, and expressive reactors—must be analytically distinguished if the psychology of assassins is to be explored fruitfully.

The Psychology of Assassins

Psychological profiles of assassins are derived from limited and unrepresentative samples biased in several ways. First, assassins who attack governmental and other institutional figures have been studied, rather than assassins acting on behalf of such figures. Second, assassins of chief executives and other prominent individuals have been studied, to the virtual exclusion of those who kill minor officials and ordinary people. Third, only assassins who have been caught have been studied, so that almost nothing is known about those who are deterred or who escape detection and capture. Fourth, analysis has focused on expressive reactors, with little or no attention having been given to hired killers and political actors. Fifth, the presumption of psychopathology has been strong in both the selection of subjects for study, usually by psychiatrists, and in the analysts’ common tendency to see political (and other) violence as intrinsically abnormal and irrational. Finally, the possibility of organized, tactical assassination has tended to be dismissed in favor of an image of the assassin as typically a loner without coherent political motivation and unable to act in concert with others to further political aims.

Research on assassins and assailants of American presidents has found nearly all to be ‘‘mentally disturbed persons who did not kill to advance any rational political plan’’ (Kirkham et al., p. 62). Douglas and Olshaker argue that political intent or consequences are incidental, emphasizing instead the paranoid loser ‘‘assassin personality’’ (p. 219) as merely another type of murderer (delusional but not hallucinatory) essentially akin to senseless killers such as serial and spree murderers.

Ellis and Gullo found assassins other than ‘‘paid gunmen’’ and political agents to have long histories of psychological disturbance, to have experienced a life crisis shortly before the assassination, and to kill without aim or sense ‘‘as far as their political beliefs and aspirations are concerned’’ (pp. 190–250).

Harris has suggested that to understand assassins one must look beyond psychopathology to the more normal psychology of the ‘‘rebellious-rivalrous personality,’’ a type who ‘‘finds authority and restrictions irksome and strives for a redistribution of hierarchical status by competing with the successful lime-lighted rival’’ (pp. 199–200). Similarly, after pointing out the narrow subjectivity of psychiatric evaluations of assassins, Clarke argues for a classification based on social contextual as well as situational and diagnostic evidence. He identifies four types of assassins, as well as a residual of ‘‘atypicals.’’ His Type I, whose ‘‘extremism is rational, selfless, principled, and without perversity,’’ appears to be equivalent to political actors. Types II (neurotics) and IV (psychotics) are analogous to emotional reactors, and Type III (psychopaths, sociopaths) is perhaps analogous to hired killers (pp. 13–17).

Though recognizing the quite limited explanatory power of psychopathology, Robins and Post nevertheless invoke the concept of a ‘‘paranoid style’’ in trying to explain why many people who are not clinically psychopathological may share a belief that their government or other forces are threatening their physical or cultural well-being. Applying such a label to social movements and organizations merely reinforces the assumption that there must be ‘‘something wrong’’ with people whose experiences and beliefs differ significantly from those of the observer, and whose perceptions of threat may not be entirely unwarranted.

From the limited evidence available, it may be concluded that the hypothesis of prior psychopathology is supported for expressive reactors and may have some relevance for explaining hired killers. However, these constitute only a minority of assassins, most of whom are clearly motivated by political concerns based on religious, nationalist, racial-ethnic, and other widely shared ideologies.

The Impact of Assassination

The impact of assassination varies according to the political milieu. Assassination undermines democratic institutions insofar as it deters able persons from seeking positions of leadership, reduces the public’s sense of security, or leads to repression and vigilantism. In more totalitarian systems it encourages opportunism and autocracy, inhibits creative effort and cooperation, and therefore probably reduces the capacity for adapting to environmental and internal changes. Where economic and political instability are endemic, as in much of the developing world, assassination makes it even less likely that able leaders will emerge or have time enough to act effectively. In short, where political order is lacking, assassination helps to prevent its achievement; where it is established, assassination contributes to its erosion or ossification.

Assassination is most likely to be an effective tactic when the goal is a limited one (e.g., retaliation, discipline, elimination of a rival) and when it has organizational support (Ben-Yehuda). It is least likely to occur or affect political life when most people are content and when peaceful mechanisms for transferring power have been established. But insofar as political conflicts spill over or transcend national boundaries, ‘‘imported’’ assassinations may occur—particularly in more open societies such as the Western democracies. And finally, the globalization of conflicts facilitated by technological developments and driven by religio-political ideologies of cosmological struggle ( Juergensmeyer) portends more assassination events irrespective of local conditions.


  1. Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. Political Assassinations by Jews. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
  2. Clarke, James American Assassins: The Darker Side of Politics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.
  3. Douglas, John, and Olshaker, Mark. The Anatomy of Motive. New York: Scribners, 1999.
  4. Ellis, Albert, and Gullo, John Murder and Assassination. New York: Lyle Stuart, 1971.
  5. Franzius, Enno. History of the Order of Assassins. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969.
  6. Gross, Feliks. Violence in Politics: Terror and Political Assassination in Eastern Europe and Russia. Hague: Mouton, 1972.
  7. Harris, Irving ‘‘Assassins.’’ In Violence: Perspectives on Murder and Aggression. Edited by Irwin L. Kutash, Samuel B. Kutash, Louis B. Schesinger, and others. Foreword by Alexander Wolf. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1978. Pages 198–218.
  8. Havens, Murray Clark; Leiden, Carl; and Schmitt, Karl The Politics of Assassination. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.
  9. Juergensmeyer, Mark. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
  10. Kirkham, James; Levy, Sheldon G.; and Crotty, William J. Assassination and Political Violence: A Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. Reprint, with an introduction by Harrison E. Salisbury. New York: Bantam Books, 1970.
  11. Kittrie, Nicholas ‘‘A New Look at Political Offenses and Terrorism.’’ In International Terrorism in the Contemporary World. Edited by Marius H. Livingston, with Lee Bruce Kress and Marie G. Wanek. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978. Pages 354–375.
  12. Law Commission. Codification of the Criminal Law: Treason, Sedition, and Allied Offenses. Working Paper No. 72. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1977.
  13. Robins, Robert, and Post, Jerrold M. Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.
  14. Smith, Brent Terrorism in America: Pipe Bombs and Pipe Dreams. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1994.
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