Assassinations

Leaders' deaths mark history's pivots

Bhutto Assassinated

December 28, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 was a shot heard around the world, sparking World War I.

In 1948, the killing of Mahatma Gandhi, India's spiritual and political leader, helped galvanize a newly independent nation.

And some observers believe the killing of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 initially helped but ultimately foiled further peace plans for the region.

Over the past century, assassinations of heads of state and other prominent leaders such as the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States and Rabin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in the Middle East have shifted the course of history one way or another.

The full consequences of yesterday's assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto remain to be seen. But some experts worry what impact the event will have in an era where conflict driven by religious extremism transcends the nation state.

"There are assassinations that lie in these moments when history can pivot one way or another, it can galvanize people or it can throw people in another direction," said Steve Clemons, director of foreign policy programs at the New America Foundation. "I think that Bhutto's death is probably a foreshock of other potential assassinations. It's the kind of assassination that hits sort of a soft spot in global tectonics."

The death of opposition leader Bhutto, just 12 days before national elections were set to take place, plunged Pakistan into disarray.

But observers say Bhutto's assassination was less of a shock than earlier political killings. She had faced numerous death threats and an attempt on her life since she returned to Pakistan Oct. 18 after an eight-year exile.

Some assassinations have inspired generations of young people, elevating the victims and their accomplishments to heroic proportions.

But Bhutto was more of a symbol of future promise, a woman whose supporters thought she could save a country from the threat of Islamic extremism.

"Symbolically, she was the modern Muslim woman head of state," said Ruth Wedgewood, professor of international law and diplomacy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Bhutto's death will only stoke fear and paranoia in a nation already troubled by it, Wedgewood said.

"Assassinations tend to provoke this ubiquitous paranoia," said Wedgewood. "Who did it? Was it al-Qaida, was it the Inter-Services Intelligence, was it a political faction? It's enormously detrimental to any attempt for political accommodation."

The shooting of Rabin 12 years ago, in contrast, came as a complete shock, said David Pollock, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"It was the last thing that people expected at the time," said Pollock. "In that way it's different from what's been happening in Pakistan and many other countries in the region more recently."

Rabin's assassination by a Jewish fundamentalist initially caused Israelis to be more sympathetic to his policies of compromise and territorial concessions with Palestinians, said Pollock.

But within six months a wave of suicide bombs led to a backlash.

"Rabin's assassination had the temporary but fateful and very ironic effect of actually rebounding politically against the extremist campaign," said Pollock. "But it didn't last."

In Bhutto's case, many observers say the impact of her killing could reach across the entire region.

"In the 1950s, assassination had more to do with the building blocks of the Cold War and U.S.-Soviet competition," said Clemons. "Today it's the state as an organizing form of government versus this transnational blob of fundamentalist Islam that does not look at the traditional nation state as being something that's in their interest."

"Bhutto's assassination probably ends definitively democratic promotion in this area of the world for a while, but it may more importantly signal a tactic these Islamic fundamentalist groups will resort to," he said.

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

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