Murder justified as tyrannicide

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YIGAL AMIR, the Israeli student charged with the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, has brought down a second victim. In the sort of language used by American officers such as General Colin Powell, who has just pulled out of the American presidential race, it is "collateral damage". But the general is not going to run because, after what happened in Jerusalem last Saturday, he and Mrs Powell think that he, too, might become a target.

In all history, I have never heard of a man or a woman who refused the chance of power because powerful people get murdered. Not even high-risk groups such as Roman imperial usurpers or early kings of Scotland ("ane lecherous and bluidy tyrant, slaine be hys nobills in the viij zeare of hys Rein") were as cautious as that. But something curious is happening to the image of leaders, especially democratic ones in the rich West.

It is not just that they have to be sexually immaculate and financially odourless - not a kiss outside marriage, not a penny overdrawn at the bank, not a gas bill unpaid. It is that they must also expect to be shot at. A mythical age is returning. The Shining One is scrubbed and anointed, perfumed and garlanded, before being led to the altar where the man with the knife will shed his blood for the life of the people. We thought, a few years ago, that politics was about electing a mortal politician to do a rational job. Now we are wallowing in junk anthropology about "The King Must Die".

The whole world is moved by the spectacle of this tragedy in Israel. And this is not only because a good man was murdered for making peace. It is also because of another agony: the horror of Israeli people who had not known that they could do this to themselves, and supposed that, in politics, Jew did not murder Jew.

To make this rending of innocence even more painful, it has turned out that there are Jews - apparently including Yigal Amir - who believe that they can justify the Rabin murder by Scripture. Some identified the late Prime Minister as an "Amalek": the biblical enemy of the children of Israel whom Moses was commanded to slay. Others, such as Rabbi Abraham Hecht , claim that the 12th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides declared that anyone handing over the Jewish people and their patrimony to aliens is a traitor, obliging any honest man to kill him in the name of the Law. Rabbi Hecht lives in Brooklyn, and his reading of the saintly Maimonides is an intellectual atrocity in itself. For most Israelis, this idea that their own tradition can be twisted into a Jewish version of a Tehran fatwa is unbearable.

The idea of the just assassination - tyrannicide - is none the less part of Western tradition. Repressed through most of the Middle Ages, it had been endlessly discussed in the Greco-Roman world and was rediscovered as classical political texts were disinterred in the Renaissance. Hobbes, writing his Leviathan a few years after the English had cut their king's head off, blamed "the reading of the books of policy, and histories of the ancient Greeks and Romans - men have undertaken to kill their kings, because the Greek and Latin writers, in their books, and discourses of policy, make it lawful and laudable for any man so to do; provided, before he do it, he call him tyrant".

Whenever I think of tyrannicide, I think of the statue of Harmodius and his lover Aristogeiton in the museum at Naples. The two young men stand naked, waving their daggers in triumph. They have just stabbed Hipparchus, brother of the Athenian tyrant Hippias, and seem to expect applause. But both were killed by the tyrant's bodyguard, and it was only after the tyrant's death that they were named liberators and ritually honoured as the proto-martyrs of democracy.

They perished in 514BC. But their example fascinated many generations, and statues of them (like the group at Naples) were still being sold 500 years later in the early Roman Empire. It was this sort of thing that Hobbes considered a "venom I will not doubt to compare to the biting of a mad dog". He wanted classical writings about tyrannicide banned. And in fact it was because of those writings that John Wilkes Booth, as he pulled the trigger on Abraham Lincoln 200 years later, shouted in Latin: "Sic semper tyrannis!" (always thus with tyrants) ...

Romans and Greeks found it easy to accept that it could sometimes be right to kill one's ruler. But when this thought revived in Reformation Europe, it had become much harder to think. Tyrants, emperors and consuls had been replaced by the Lord's anointed. Christian kings, even bad ones, were sacred instruments of God's purpose. Most Protestants agreed that a "godly prince" should be obeyed. But what if he were ungodly?

St Paul wrote: "Let every soul be subject to the higher powers ... the powers that be are ordained of God." In Paul's time, these words meant only that Christians should be law-abiding and pay their taxes. But what if God, in his mystery, ordained the Devil himself to rule the kingdom, to torture and slaughter the innocent faithful until his Word was silent? Amid the horrors of 16th-century Germany, Luther said that even the crowned Devil was of God and must be obeyed. In Luther's German, Paul's words ring like the fastening of a padlock. Sei untertan der Obrigkeit, denn wo Obrigkeit ist, die ist von Gott ... This is not about being a Roman citizen. It is about being a pinioned victim who must kiss the axe before it beheads him.

The British, puzzled, used to ask: "That Hitler - why doesn't anyone shoot him?" They did not understand the German-Lutheran complex that made it so hard to defy God and strike at the Antichrist. English and Scottish traditions have no such hang-up. The right of resistance to tyranny is alive in both cultures, though defined in neither. Personally, I am sure that any anti-popular autocracy in Britain, royal or republican, would have led to political assassinations. But for nearly 300 years, there has been at least the appearance of government by consent - except in Ireland.

Nobody murders a ruler as a private act. All assassins fancy they are acting for something bigger: the nation, the Law, the will of God. Sometimes history turns their way, and they become heroes like Harmodius and Aristogeiton. More often, society dismisses them as deluded terrorists.

Assassination is now more common in democracies than in tyrannies. This is not so strange. It is hard to identify with kings or even with dictators. But elected leaders in a television age are not just themselves but in some magical way "us": they incarnate society as well as rule it. In a democracy, the sick assassin who aims at an Israeli prime minister or an American president is also aiming at his own hated self.

Tyrannicide was once the last resort of reason. Now it has become the cleansing ritual of psychopaths. We have not advanced very much.