Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN.
The murder of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto is an evil act that, on its face, delivers a crushing blow to the forces for democratization and enlightenment in Pakistan – and the world over. Nevertheless, her assassination raises an awful, amoral, terribly unsentimental historical question: do assassinations like this – as shocking and horrific as they are – ever produce unintended positive consequences? This question is not to justify any such crimes. But it is instructive to think about the expected and the unexpected, the predictable and the unpredictable, positive gains that sometimes result from terrible losses.
Assassinations freeze moments – and leaders – in historical time, then frequently place the martyred leader on the national, and even international pantheon of immortals.
Often, naturally, justifiably, we mourn the lost potential, we contemplate all the good the lost leader could have accomplished. We imagine Abraham Lincoln engineering a just post-Civil War Reconstruction that rehabilitated Southerners and welcomed blacks as citizens – in contrast to the hamhanded Andrew Johnson’s failures. We envisage John Kennedy managing the civil rights movement, avoiding the Vietnam War mess, and preventing any serious Sixties youth rebellion, which his successor Lyndon Johnson could not do. And we dream of the kind of warm peace Anwar Sadat would have brought to the Middle East, indulging in the fantasy that he could have moderated other leaders, including the incorrigible Yasir Arafat.
The truth is, as flesh-and-blood politicos become legendary icons they often become more powerful symbols dead than they would have been had they remained alive. John Kennedy was on track to be a rather mediocre president when Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet cut him down. And while Martin Luther King, Jr., had already proved his greatness before being murdered at the tender age of thirty-nine, he died just as the civil rights movement was hitting a particular rocky patch. King’s death in 1968 froze him as the sainted slayer of Southern segregation but insulated him from the ensuing decades’ fights over busing, affirmative action, African-American crime, and how to balance personal prerogative and the need to integrate.
Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in November, 1995, made him an enduring icon of Israel’s hopes for peace – and Israel’s peace camp. He is remembered as a warm fuzzy peacemaker, rather than the gruff, Scotch-drinking warrior he was for much of his life. Who knows if he would have been able to stave off the ensuing Palestinian violence. Who knows how his reactions to that violence might have tainted his now pristine image. In fact, in elevating Rabin to a godlike status as Israel’s martyred mediator, Rabin’s murderer unwittingly gave his opponents a powerful spur for more concessions and more conciliation.
Looking at the heartbreaking images beaming out of Pakistan today, this assassination’s negative consequences are clear. Benzair Bhutto’s death all but guarantees more unrest, euphoria among her violent, Islamist opponents, and a blow to Pakistan’s already fragile democracy. Bhutto’s assassination shows how deeply the culture of violence permeates and distorts so many polities in the Islamic world. Who knows? Perhaps this act of violence will be the wake-up call Pakistanis – and Muslims throughout the world – need to demand a reformation of Islam and expel from their midst the Jihadists and that murderous medieval spirit of Jihadism which is proving so dangerous.