The assassination of prominent figures in society has been a recurring event throughout history. Sometimes, targeting someone to be killed is part of a political power struggle, as shown by the numbers of kings, emperors and political leaders who have fallen victim to this fate. Others have simply been the victims of crazy and unstable individuals. In either case, assassinations usually are the subject of considerable controversy and debate.
As this list shows, the tool of assassination has a long history, going back as far as recorded history. Even in the Old Testament of The Bible, there are several examples of assassination carried out. A series of Roman emperors were also targeted for assassination. But it is far from being a weapon of the ancient world, as shown by the fact that within 100 years, starting with the death of Lincoln in 1865, four US Presidents were assassinated.
Assassination has also become a weapon in the hands of military operations against insurgent groups. Since launching its War on Terror in the wake of 9/11, the US military has developed a version of this approach, with its targeted killing program, which has been vastly expanded under current President Barack Obama with the use of drones. The following list provides ten of the most notorious assassinations that have taken place.
10 Julius Caesar
One of the most famous Roman leaders, Caesar was attacked and killed by a group of senators in 44 BC. Estimates suggest that upwards of 60 people participated in the assassination, stabbing Caesar 23 times. His murder had been precipitated by a growing conflict within the state, as the Roman republic became increasingly unworkable. After taking over modern day France, Caesar assumed ever more dictatorial powers, which provoked the ire of significant sections of the aristocracy. But rather than consolidating power in their hands as the senators had hoped, the death of Caesar brought about the demise of the republic itself, mainly because the lower and middle classes in Roman society were outraged that the popular leader had been eliminated by a secret plot.
9 Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln became the first US President to be assassinated on the 14th of April, 1865, while attending a theater production. He was killed by an actor, John Booth, and was part of a broader conspiracy to revive the fortunes of the confederacy, which faced total defeat in the civil war. Although he survived the initial gunshot wound, Lincoln died early the following morning. The conspiracy to eliminate the Vice President, Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward failed, and the conspirators were later caught and placed on trial for Lincoln’s death. Millions of people viewed Lincoln’s funeral train as it traveled from Washington through New York, and finally to Springfield, Illinois.
8 Leon Trotsky
The joint leader of the Russian revolution alongside Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City, in August 1940, by an agent acting on behalf of the Stalinist regime in Moscow. Posing as a political supporter, Ramon Mercader smuggled himself into Trotsky’s house and drove an ice pick through his head, resulting in his death the following day. Trotsky had become an ardent opponent of Joseph Stalin, criticizing him for his nationalist politics, repression of political opponents, and brutal treatment of the Soviet population. Trotsky’s death came after a period of three years, in which an estimated 1 million members of the Communist Party had been exterminated by Stalin, in what was referred to as the Moscow trials.
7 Patrice Lumumba
The first democratically elected leader of the newly independent Congo, Lumumba was targeted for removal by the United States and its allies, due to fears that he would challenge the dominant role that the western powers continued to have in the country’s affairs. His removal from office and assassination was signed off by the American CIA, and documents also appeared later in Belgium and Britain, indicating that both governments agreed with this policy. Lumumba was placed under house arrest on September 14th, 1960, by Joseph Mobutu, the chief of the military who would later go on to lead Congo (renamed Zaire) for 32 years. Then on January 17th, 1961, Lumumba was taken from prison along with two of his allies, tied to a tree and shot by a firing squad. To conceal the crime, the killers dissolved his body in acid.
6 John. F. Kennedy
While the events of November 22nd, 1963, in Dallas are well known to most people, the vast array of theories as to who was responsible for the shooting of President Kennedy are almost just as familiar. Kennedy was touring the city with his wife, when he was struck by a gunshot, believed to be fired by Lee Harvey Oswald who was later detained by police. Oswald was himself killed just two days later. Despite the release of an official report insisting that Oswald carried out the murder as a lone gunman and was not part of any broader plot, a large portion of the American population has never accepted this verdict. The fact that Kennedy died at a time of tense political conflicts around the world and within the US itself has lent weight to claims that he was the victim of an attack motivated by something more than the senseless rage of an individual.
5 Martin Luther King Jr.
King was the leader of a powerful civil rights movement which had won significant concessions through its nationwide protests, when he was shot by an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4th, 1968. King had been in the city to lend his support to striking sanitation workers. James Earl Ray was charged with committing the murder the following year, and sentenced to 99 years imprisonment. But King’s family did not accept that Ray had been the culprit, and have repeatedly sought to investigate the events of April 1968. A wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family in 1999, resulted in a decision in favor of a conspiracy against the civil rights leader, although the government agencies were not present to defend themselves because they were not named in the appeal.
4 John Lennon
The former Beatles member was shot to death by Mark David Chapman, as he returned home from a recording studio on December 8th, 1980. Chapman fired five bullets at Lennon using a revolver, and hit him four times. Lennon was declared dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital. Although Chapman’s lawyers intended to enter an insanity plea on his behalf, Chapman pleaded guilty to the murder in 1981, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. There were reports that at least three Beatles fans committed suicide after hearing of Lennon’s death. Millions of people paid tribute to Lennon around the world, including the famous gathering of thousands a week after his death in Central Park.
3 Olof Palme
On a quiet evening in Stockholm, in 1986, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was assassinated as he walked home alone from a cinema. The murder remains a mystery more than 25 years after it took place, in spite of extensive investigations. As it happened during the last years of the Cold War, speculation over involvement by the Soviet Union continued for several years. But no evidence has ever been uncovered confirming Moscow’s involvement. In fact, a suspect in the crime has yet to be identified. The assassination was especially shocking in a society which had been characterized at least on the surface by its stability in the decades following World War II.
2 Patrick Finucane
Patrick Finucane was a lawyer in Northern Ireland, who worked defending the civil rights of Catholics. He was targeted for assassination by loyalist groups and shot in 1989, during the long-running troubles, the conflict between nationalists fighting for an independent Ireland, and unionists struggling to maintain Northern Ireland’s position as part of the United Kingdom. The killing continues to be particularly controversial, due to the indications that the British secret services were involved in bringing about Finucane’s death. A public inquiry left many questions unanswered and his family and supporters continue to press for the truth about the incident to be uncovered.
1 Juvenal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira
A surface-to-air missile struck the plane carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents on April 6th, 1994. Both leaders were returning from a regional conference in Tanzania, when their plane was shot down as it prepared to land in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. The question of who was responsible for the killing remains disputed, but it led to the greatest genocide in the second half of the 20th century. Rwanda, a country which had suffered civil war since 1990, was thrown into a three month period of barbarism, which resulted in the deaths of over 800,000 people, overwhelmingly members of the Tutsi minority. Habyarimana had come under increasing pressure from extremist elements within the majority Hutu ethnic group for his readiness to negotiate with the Tutsis, fueling speculation that they could have been behind the missile strike.