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The Perennially Difficult Debate Around Tyrannicide

(EPA/Alessandro di Meo)

“It is, for the most part, a taboo, presumably because of how morally outrageous it seems—and because no sensible person wants to go down as proposing assassinations.”

A few weeks ago, Sudan’s Omar Al Bashir was toppled down in a coup. This makes one fewer dictator in the world. Unfortunately, there are many more to go. The self-styled “champion of democracy,” the United States, has learned the hard way that, in most countries, democracy cannot be imposed with bayonets. Afghanistan and Iraq are a major testament to that. But surely, we are tempted to think, some things can still be done to depose Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, Africa’s many remaining dictators, and so on. Perhaps some diplomatic maneuvering is in order. Or, maybe economic sanctions. All of those things have been tried, but for the most part, dictators stubbornly remain in power.

So, how about just killing the dictator? Perhaps the snipers could do the job, and once the poisonous snake’s head is chopped off, the rest of the body collapses. This concept, known as “tyrannicide,” is not frequently discussed these days. In fact, it is, for the most part, a taboo, presumably because of how morally outrageous it seems—and because no sensible person wants to go down as proposing assassinations. But, although no one dares to mention the t-word, it is surprisingly present and endorsed in many aspects of cultural life.

The phrase Sic semper tyrannis (“thus always the tyrants”) has a curious history. It was made famous (or rather, infamous) by John Wilkins Booth when, after shooting Abraham Lincoln to death in a theater, he jumped onto the stage shouting it. The state of Virginia preserves the motto in its flag. Perhaps we may think of this as just an oddity, most likely a neo-Confederate remnant. However, unlike the Confederate flag, the Sic semper tyrannis motto hardly offends anybody, and it is not likely to be removed from the Virginia flag any time soon. This is probably because, like it or not, tyrannicide does form part of the American ethos.

Americans do enjoy seeing tyrants being killed, and this may very well be a side-effect of the kind of freedom-loving spirit that Tocqueville described when visiting the United States in the 19th Century. Americans are not content with admiring the courage of Operation Valkyrie. They are only truly satisfied with the gory assassination of Hitler in Inglourious Basterds. Even kids are getting the memo that tyrants must die. In case you haven’t noticed, tyrannicide is one major theme of The Lion King, and Disney, underneath all its rosy songs and storylines, is also happy to see dictators’ bad deeds come back to them.

This may seem like a variant of American cowboy bravado. But, in fact, the endorsement of tyrannicide has a very long history. The Greeks lionized Harmodius and Aristogeiton, two lovers who tried to murder Hippias, the tyrant of Athens, but only managed to assassinate Hipparch, a lower-ranking despot. Julius Caesar (perhaps the greatest statesman of Classical Antiquity), was also assassinated. Dante, the medieval poet, despised the main assassin, Brutus, by placing him in the deepest layer of Hell, along with Judas. In Dante’s mind, traitors (Brutus was very close to Caesar) deserve no forgiveness. Yet, Shakespeare had other ideas. His treatment of Brutus in Julius Caesar is far more ambiguous. Shakespeare seems to acknowledge that Brutus’ choice may have been wrong, but, at the same time, it conveys that Brutus was thoroughly guided by moral integrity and a sense of duty to preserve the Roman Republican ethos against Caesar’s turn towards monarchial rule.

By the 17th Century, philosophers were more emboldened in arguing that it is morally acceptable to kill tyrants. Juan de Mariana’s The King and the Education of the King makes the case that, if a despot usurps power—or a legitimate ruler turns into a tyrant—any common citizen has the right to take the tyrant’s life. Mariana unfortunately did not care much to specify what a tyrant is, and inevitably his philosophy lent itself to abuse. When the French king Henry IV (a monarch universally admired and recognized as a just ruler) was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic, there was speculation that the assassin had been inspired by reading Mariana, a Jesuit. In truth, the assassin did not even know who Mariana was, but many people were rightly concerned about Mariana’s over eagerness in calling for the assassination of politicians.

Today, despite the popular taste for the enjoyment of dictators’ deaths, few philosophers care to think about the ethics of tyrannicide. It seems that the few philosophers who are concerned with this matter, lean heavily towards utilitarian reasoning. In their view, the purpose of killing a tyrant is to save a nation. The tyrant must be killed, not as an extrajudicial administration of justice, but rather, because the nation without the tyrant would be far better off, and the tyrant refuses to step down. If somehow the tyrant could be removed from power without the shedding of blood, then that option is preferable. Tyrannicide should not be about lynching; it should only be about removing a despot from power.

We may very well think of tyrannicide in terms of the famous “Trolley Problem”: if given the chance to divert a trolley by pulling a lever, so that instead of killing five people, it only kills one, should we not pull the lever? When asked in surveys, most people seem to agree with pulling the lever. It seems like a no-brainer: if the death of one tyrant will save a whole nation, then there is no moral disturbance in choosing the death of the tyrant. However, killing a tyrant may actually be more similar to another variant of the Trolley Problem: we throw a fat man from a bridge in order to stop a trolley from running over five people. In this scenario, the participation in killing the one to save the five, is far more active. When asked in surveys, far fewer people are willing to push the fat man.

Hardcore utilitarians would not have a problem pushing the fat man, because ultimately, even if the participation in the killing is far more active, the whole moral dilemma still amounts to numbers: kill one to save five. And ultimately, numbers are all that matters to utilitarians. So, even if killing a tyrant may seem morally messier than using diplomatic measures, it ultimately saves more lives, and that is what truly counts.

However, even these hardcore utilitarians would argue that, in order for tyrannicide to be morally justified, the results must be really advantageous. And, it is far from clear that the killing of a tyrant can actually save a nation. As mentioned above, the moral defense of tyrannicide has the difficulty of specifying who is a tyrant. As the cases of Henry IV and Lincoln prove, any fanatic can feel authorized to kill a just ruler, by adjusting the meaning of “tyrant” to his own personal preferences. But, even if the assassinated person is unquestionably a tyrant, there is still no guarantee that the tyrannicide will make things better. In fact, that seems to be Shakespeare’s lesson. Yes, Julius Caesar may have become a tyrant, and yes, Brutus had the noble intention of restoring Republican values. Yet, the end result was that after Caesar’s death, even more tyrannical powers came to be in the form of emperors. Brutus’ plan resulted in a massive backfire.

Today’s Middle East seems to be a confirmation of this Shakespearean insight. Are Iraq and Libya better off as a result of Saddam’s and Gadaffi’s deaths, respectively? Hardly. There is no question that these were brutal tyrants, but those who planned their deaths did not do the proper calculations. In most cases, tyrannicide either brings tremendous instability (as in the contemporary Middle East), or simply turns the tyrant’s successors even more despotic, with fierce persecution against the plotters, and even brutal revenge against the population (as in the case of Rome after Caesar’s death).

Yet, despite these shortcomings, the moral discussion on tyrannicide must not be discarded. For, in very few exceptions, a targeted assassination of a tyrant could still be considered a viable option. Since, as so many movies and novels prove, tyrannicide has great popular appeal, philosophers, policy makers, and generals, should not bury their heads in the sand. This is a topic that should be in the public forum and must be carefully assessed on a case-by-case basis.

I will refrain from naming specific countries, but it does seem to me that the assassination of most dictators would accomplish nothing, given their popularity (like it or not, some tyrants are popular in their own countries), or simply due to the lack of a viable actor to fill the void. But in a few other cases, dictators are deeply unpopular, and hold on to power solely on the basis of bribes and terror; in some of these countries, there is even a viable alternate leader ready to step in, with substantial popular support.

Maybe the death of a tyrant could indeed save the whole nation. In fact, that was exactly the reasoning of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the renowned 20th Century German theologian. Bonhoeffer developed a reputation for being a staunch pacifist, and this put him at odds with the Nazi regime. Yet, precisely because he hated war, Bonhoeffer came to understand that by 1944, the only way to put an end to the carnage of World War II, was by assassinating Hitler. He thus got involved in Operation Valkyrie. Of course, the operation failed, but we are left to wonder what would have happened if Hitler had been killed. I venture to say that, had this happened, millions of lives would have been saved. Bonhoeffer was probably right.

Bringing Hitler to any conversation on politics has become a cliché. And thus, when considering the relevance of tyrannicide, we must not overuse analogies with the Führer. No current dictator is as brutal as Hitler. But, in some countries, people are dying by the hundreds of thousands and fleeing by the millions. This does not necessarily mean that tyrannicide is the best solution to those crises. It would certainly be a very tough call, and perhaps cooler minds should prevail. But these cooler minds must do a better job of polishing their arguments against tyrannicide, because as it stands, there is something appealing about it in the minds of many sensible people.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at St. Matthew’s University School of Medicine. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.

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