Bryan Caplan  

Tyrannicide: Now in a Theater Near You

Jenkins on CAFE... Try This on Your Favorite Curm...

Valkyrie, Bryan Singer's film about the 1944 officers' plot against Hitler, is worth seeing.  But I'm admittedly a little biased.  After all, my first academic publication (in the Humane Studies Review) has a whole section on the philosophy of tyrannicide

In hindsight, I'm amazed that people who don't think twice about killing conscripts (or even civilians) are so reluctant to justify violence against serial killer statesmen.  What could be less objectionable than trying to stop mass murder by killing the specific individuals most responsible for it?

If the philosophical case for tyrannicide is so strong, why do so many people - including the members of the 1944 plot against Hitler - have such strong moral qualms against it?  My best guess is that (a) there is a high correlation between moral virtue and obedience to authority, and (b) political leaders are very reluctant to support tyrannicide because they're worried about retaliation and/or setting a precedent.  But I wonder if that's a little too conspiratorial.  Any thoughts?

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COMMENTS (42 to date)
Fazal Majid writes:

In war it is not always a good idea to kill your enemy's leader outright, as in the ensuing confusion there might not be anyone to settle cease-fire terms with. That is not an argument against tyrannicide per se, however.

A practical argument could be made that the most likely successor to the tyrant could be even worse (e.g. Himmler instead of Hitler), and the tyrant's killing used as justification for a bloodbath as occurred when president Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda was killed by the RPF, triggering the Rwandan genocide.

Eddy Elfenbein writes:

I think many of the plotters were devoutly Catholic and had strong moral reservations about killing anyone. Only after the war became hopeless and they heard more about the death camps were they fully convinced that not killing Hitler would have been more deadly.

OneEyedMan writes:

The Milgrom experiment also suggests that when moral virtue is in conflict with obedience to authority, obedience wins out.

That said, sociopaths aren't that rare, some estimates put them as high as 4% of the male population, so why can't we figure out a way to recruit those that don't care about morality to take care of tyrants.

dcpi writes:

I was under the impression that the British developed a sniper plot to assassinate Hitler in his Alps residence but did not pull the trigger out of concerns that they would martyr him and make resistance more determined. There was also the concern that the populace could hang on the excuse that the generals "sold them out again" if Hitler were not outright defeated.

Niccolo writes:

An earlier movie this year addressed this very question, actually.

Here's the Joker's answer,

"You know... You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan." But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!"

I think it's somewhat correct. When things don't go according to what's expected, people freak out; even if what's expected goes well.

People don't like surprise; people equate it with panic.

Brandon Berg writes:

My guess is that targeting a specific individual feels like murder. When you think about it, assassination is clearly morally preferable to war, but it's considered in bad taste to reason about morality.

Andrew writes:

Regarding the actual army officers in the 1944 plot, a big problem for them was that they had sworn a personal oath of loyalty to Hitler back when he first came to power, and they took that very seriously, as part of the whole military honor business.

Phil writes:

Isn't there a law prohibiting the US from deliberately targeting another country's leaders?

Grant writes:

Were the people in the actual plot (not the movie) hesitant for moral reasons? If so, what were those reasons?

Is there a higher degree of obedience among the military? One would think so.

I would say its not at all conspiratorial to suggest that leaders don't kill other leaders because they don't wish to be assassinated themselves. It seems like a PD where cooperation is traditional fighting (i.e., mass murder) and defection is a war of assassins. A rational leader would only attempt the later if he thought his opponent was going to do the same. One would think those leaders wouldn't live to pass their memes and genes on - many would be assassinated. The leaders who kill massive numbers of their subjects would survive.

Another point is that killing a leader may not be useful if the person who replaces him isn't significantly better (e.g., would anyone assassinate Bush if Cheney just took his place?), and the assassination couldn't be repeated. Presumably one could just keep killing tyrants until they stopped taking power, but this may not be a realistic goal. Even if no single tyrant takes his place, the results can be pretty bad (e.g., Iraq).

Tyrannicide seems like a very risky move, and one with very little personal payoff if the assassin cannot assume power in the tyrant's place.

Curt Doolittle writes:

Tyrannicide is a tried and true practice.

First, because a government run by an individual is easy to change, simply by killing the ruler. We are, by contrast, stuck with destroying our entire civilization in order to kill the underlying bureaucracy.

A good ruler is well protected by admirers, a bad one eliminated by detractors. In a good deal of history, a bad leader is often killed by his own family, doing the public a service in exchange for protecting their patrimony.

We were much better off under monarchy for precisely this reason.

David W writes:

As much as it may seem like it, it's usually not *a* leader, it's a leadership apparatus supported by the people, with the leader replaceable. Especially in modern states, assassination is unlikely to work, and certainly unlikely enough that you can't count on it.

Saddam Hussein was a good example - didn't we blow up something like 3 of his palaces, with the only net result being that he identified and killed our spy? Because Saddam had a loyal support apparatus, it took 6 months of virtually unopposed hunting for him in order to find him and do him in. If you have to have control of the country anyway in order to achieve tyrannicide, you might as well focus on gaining control of the country and not on the tyrannicide.

That said, if assassination could be easy and repeatable enough, it could be viable. After the tenth vacancy in a month, I bet you wouldn't have volunteers to fill the post anymore. It's just that this is a lot harder to do than to talk about.

mjh writes:

How about the fact that it's just plain dangerous to attempt to do something like this. If you fail, you will almost certainly be killed yourself, after first being tortured.

The tyrant leader may be in the wrong, but he commands the loyalty of many against the person attempting this. The odds of success are not good, and the consequences of failure are horrifying. That should be enough to give anyone pause to contemplate something like this.

Chad writes:

Fazal's answer above reminds me of the one Kant gave for not using political assassination (which in this answer is significantly different than killing one's own tyrant). If political leaders are recognized as not legitimate targets internationally, then they are more likely to show up to peace talks and similar arrangements instead of hiding in bunkers, so, the claim is, assassinations are wrong at least because they make peace less likely or more difficult.

It is worth noting that in an (satiric) essay on the killing of civilians, Orwell gave an argument for the opposite. Namely, people are more willing to support war when it is other people who will die. Democracies will vote for war when it is only the poor, young men who will die, but when civilians are targets as well the disincentives to war are greater. In the end of the essay, Orwell states a hope that one day politicians will also be vulnerable to such deaths, but that is exactly what happens with political assassination. If political leaders know that they are immune to personal attack, get all the benefits if their side wins the war, and if they lose they will be put on house arrest in their mansion, war may be more likely than if political leaders know that they may be the primary target in the war.

John Markley writes:

It's enormously common in history for people to believe that rulers are superhuman- the king is chosen by God, or descended from a god, or is a god himself. This is not surprising: The state by its nature routinely violates the moral norms that bind everyone else and make civilized life possible, and so would never be tolerated if people thought of their rulers as mere men like themselves.

Deep down, I don't think people have really changed, except that traditional religious concepts have been partially replaced by secular mythical beings- the General Will, the social contract, the historical inevitability of communism, whatever. And, much as a king usually retained his divine right to rule even if his behavior was not terribly godly, even modern rulers who show no reverence towards the legitimating mythology of democracy do not lose their numinous character. Thus, foreign soldiers and civilians- mere mortals- can be killed, while rulers are sacrosanct. Whatever the jargon, the state’s supernatural character remains, and kings are still gods.

Boonton writes:

Might I suggest a more basic explanation. In a tyranny you are not likely to get very close to the head tyrant unless you have some degree of loyality to him or his ideology.

Matthew C. writes:

Wow Bryan I thought I was the only one cheerleading for tyrannicide as the humane alternative to war.

Excellent. . .

Gary Rogers writes:

As much as I like your argument, there is something about tyrannicide that really scares me. Not only are we irrational as voters, but we can be irrational in the way we divide into groups that either support or oppose our leaders. I don't understand how tyrants can become martyrs or how groups can remain loyal to a tyrannical leader to the end, nor can I understand how great leaders can be targeted for assassination. But it has been proven, and as irrational as this might be, all leaders are targets. If we are going to have any kind of society we need to attract and protect good leaders, not those that are willing to take on the opposition by surrounding themselves with thugs. This might also protect some tyrants, but the tradeoff is worth it.

dearieme writes:

Pinochet committed tyrannicide on Allende, effectively. Much thanks he got for it.

Isegoria writes:

The definition of tyrant is amazingly malleable — especially when you're waiting in the wings to take over as the new virtuous leader.

A society that accepts tyrannicide is an unstable society.

MattYoung writes:

The individual sniper has to overcome remembrance of his own father, Oedipus still lives. By this theory the fear is retribution, and moral restrictions are a secondary symptom of the anxiety.

Curt Doolittle writes:


Well said. We always want to place some superhuman ability in something corporeal, mythological, mystical or technical. The device changes, but the desire does not.

Most ideas, including that of the blog's author, can be traced to religious or cultural assumptions.

In the west we assume technical modification of the material world to suit our ends, egalitarianism, and the purpose of power is to denial others power. We vary some of these depending upon one's social class and heritage.

But most of the world operates on avoiding or fearing the material world, familialism or tribalism, and the purpose of power is to place those in power for advantage.

We also are currently using the properties of numbers, newtonian time, the scientific method, and democracy as deities, assuming that that they have wisdom there that we did not place in them by assumptions. A set of problems which is preventing economics from becoming the science that we wish it to be.


Troy Camplin writes:

I'm with you, but my brother thinks that assassination is wrong, but war is fine. Of course, the goal in a war is typically to get the head guy, so it seems logical to me to just go after the head guy. Of course, in more complex governmental systems, like ours, killing the "head" guy is rather pointless, since our kind of government is in fact rather headless.

DanT writes:

Human social norms evolved from millions of years as small groups of hunter-gatherers. Groups which accepted tyrannicide were not naturally selected.

Evolutionary reasons against tyrannicide:
Continuity of leadership is important to maintain knowledge (best hunting grounds, how frequently to move camp, etc.).
If leaders are often killed, the most capable person will not become the leader.

Groups with tyrannicide as an accepted social norm would not have had capable, continuous leadership and would have been less capable of survival against better-led groups.

The more successful groups were composed of individuals with tendancies against tyrannicide and of individuals who conform to social norms (proof not shown).

Aberrent individual tendancies towards tyrannicide would usually be suppressed by individuals to conform to the social norms.

To get a person who is a tyrannicide you need
(1) an individual with tyrannical tendancies counter to the group's norm;
(2) the same individual does not conform to the social norms against tyrannicide;
(3) the individual conforms to enough other social norms that the group does not outlaw him before he commits tyrannicide;
(4) the leader does not recognize the tyrannicide-in-waiting.

To get this particular person is extremely unlikely in a small hunter-gatherer group. As human organization reaches nation-state size, it becomes more likely. At that point, the leader institutes additional protections for himself from such attacks. As long as these protections are not a signficant drain on productivity, the nation-state remains a stable form of organization. We would expect to see more tyrannicide in poor nation-states.

We would also expect to see more tyrannicide in nation-states with changing and uncertain social norms, like Nazi Germany.

Joe writes:

And suppose Hitler died, or Stalin, or Mao, or Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein? Do their regimes change? Would Himmler have ended the war and the endlosung? Did Khrushchev bring democracy and an end to the Gulag? Is China democracy, did the Gang of Four institute Bourgeois Liberties? Does anyone think that the Khmer Rouge were choir boys just ill-advised by Pol Pot? The small details might change, but the larger details do not. Kill Hitler as much as you want, but the war goes on and so do the camps.

Bottom-line: Killing almost any modern tyrant doesn’t solve the problem, it removes a tyrant, but don’t think it removes the need for a continuation of the war and the mass slaughter of soldiers and civilians. Don’t fool yourself.

notaclue writes:

Science fiction writer Poul Anderson explored the theme of political assassination in his 1959 story "A Man To My Wounding," also published as "State Of Assassination." IIRC, nations would give notice of intent to each other, creating something like a hunting season on politicians. Anderson, a libertarian, didn't explore the morality of the system in much detail, but he did create a scary world in which such actions were considered normal.

notaclue writes:

Joe, you have a good point. Seems to me that tyrannicide would produce a good outcome only in the rare case where the tyrant really does drive the whole political/ military system personally. Hitler may have been one of those rare cases.

The "great man" theory of history suggests that sometimes you can stop the train by killing the engineer. The "inexorable forces" theory sounds more like the point you are making. I couldn't tell you which one makes more sense to me.

Robert writes:

What the Allies didn't want with the Nazis was a situation where Hitler is removed through assassination or the lucky targeting of an Allied bomb, but the German military is left undefeated.

That would have allowed the Wehrmacht to negotiate an end to the war that would have left the German military largely intact, creating a huge potential problem for the future.

This is what lay behind the demand for unconditional surrender. It was an essential Allied war aim that Germans could never again claim that their military had not been defeated on the battlefield.

Hitler was only one of many Germans who argued, post-WWI, that the army hadn't lost the war but that the politicians had stabbed the country in the back. Preventing that scenario from replaying was seen by the Allies as absolutely essential.

alvinmoop writes:

The main problem with the whole concept is that like beauty, tyranny is in the eye of the beholder. When you're on the ground in a particular time and place, there's no way to know whether you're aiming at a tyrant or a saint. Example: how about a leader who led the nation into a disastrous war, eliminated most civil rights, refused to negotiate peace, and lost battle after battle at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives? Well, you're looking at Abraham Lincoln, circa 1862.

Doesn't tyrannicide almost always involve perfidy? I.e., pretending to be a civilian when in fact you are a combatant? If you are on the same side as the tyrant, that is.

In the ancient literature on this a tyrannicide was often given a reward so the reluctance you speak of is a modern phenomena.

Steve Skubinna writes:

One thing that struck me about the plot to kill Hitler was that very few offered as justification Hitler's manifestly evil nature. Instead, reasons ranged from "he was bad for Germany" to "he was destroying the Army."

I have long believed that Europeans in general suffer from an exaggerated deference to authority. Some uniformed buffoon shows up (and in some European nations, every petty functonary is uniformed) and says "Load the Jews into these railcars" and everybody turns to. People respond to the large totalitarian hat and think "He must have authority to tell us what to do, else he would not be doing it." Nobody asks "Why is this Deputy Assistant Sewer Inspector, Third Class, bossing us around?"

Tedd writes:


I don't think it's so hard to know whether or not you're "aiming at a tyrant." You have to look past their means and judge them by their ends. (And, when looking back at history, the extent to which they remained true to those ends.) If their ends respect liberty then they're not a tyrant; if they fail to respect liberty then they're a tyrant. Not that means are entirely unimportant, but they can be misleading. For example, war is always bad but not always worse than the alternatives.

Naturally, this is a continuum, not a black-and-white dividing line. And, of course, you have to make allowances for rhetoric that might attempt to make the ends look more liberty-respecting than they are. Nevertheless, underlying ends are the best way to judge whether or not someone is a tyrant.

Agoraphobic Plumber writes:

I just wanted to say that this is the first thread I've ever read where there was this much discussion of Hitler/Nazis, and yet Godwin's law has not been triggered.

Good work, people.

Tennwriter writes:

A few points...

Much of SF writer L.E. Modestit's works deal with these problems (more famous for his Recluse stories).

The Roman citizen had an obligation to kill a tyrant in the days of the Republic.

Saying 'how can you tell?' is a retreat to relativism. Morality exists as does gravity.

The fact that no lefty tried to assasinate Bush suggests to me that down deep, they know they're full of tripe.

With Stalin, I think the Russian leadership class waited something like three days to make sure he was dead after he was dead. That much raw power so frequently used shapes a nation's collective spirit...after hearing that story, I was kind of surprised they didn't chop of Stalin's head with a clove of garlic in his mouth, and bury him at the crossroads just to be on the safe side.

Dr. Mudd writes:

Killing Hitler is an easy enough question as the morality there is so extreme it's black and white. How about leaders with more shades of grey?

By your reasoning, was John Wilkes Booth a hero or a villain? How about Lee Harvey Oswald? How about Brutus?

If someone succeeds in killing Raul Castro or Hugo Chavez, is he a hero or a villain?

Tennwriter writes:

Dr. Mudd,

Booth--villain. Pragmatism, or a good end, strongly informs this type of decision. Even if you objected to Lincoln as a Southerner, there was no really good end to be gained from killing him.
Oswald--almost unquestionably a villain. I'm not a huge fan of JFK, but what was Oswald trying to do?
Brutus--villain. My limited understanding of Roman history was that Julius was trying to make official a change that had already occurred, and clean it up, and that his opponents had pushed for political trials which means "you lose election, you die, and your family too."
Hugo Chavez--Not sure, and since one shouldn't act without a great deal of surety...villain for now.
Raul Castro--if he's as bad as his brother, then hero for killing him.

Orion writes:

During the Battle of Waterloo a soldier pointed out Napoleon on the other side of the lines from Lord Wellington and noted that his sniper rifle had the range to pot him. Wellingont replied stiffly, "Don't be ridiculous. Gentlemen don't take pot shots at other gentlemen." It's kind of a mutual courtesy they extend each other - in part because they know that assassination only annoys the enemy population and makes them determined to take revenge.

Dr. Mudd writes:

Purely for the sake of argument, Mr. Lincoln did suspend Writ of Habeas Corpus, imprison men merely on suspicion and pursued five years of an extremely bloody war; a war that burned cities and starved civilians. Many Democrats of his day hated President Lincoln as a tyrant even more than some hate President Bush today (that's the only comparison I'll ever make between Lincoln and Bush BTW).

As to Mr. Kennedy, while he's not a tyrant to my eyes, I can understand some might see him that way. A citizen of North Vietnam might Mr. Kennedy as a tyrant who expanded a brutal war against Vietnamese nationalism. Don't forget the Bay of Pigs and then blockading Cuba, bringing the world close to global thermonuclear war. Cubans on both sides can have a low opinion of JFK. But the shades of grey are not so dark for Kennedy as for Lincoln.

Brutus is not a villain, he's a tragic hero. Caesar ended the Roman Republic and turned it into a monarchy, pursued war against all who opposed him. There's no telling what Caesar may have done with time but clearly Brutus was defending a republic.

But I do like your argument for Brutus as a villain. What does it say about people who are calling for trials against Bush/Cheney.

ricg writes:

I think the simple answer is patriotism. The nations of Europe, even today, are essentially tribal. Call me an American exceptionalist, but I lived in Germany for several years and found it parochial. One simply doesn't murder the tribal leader, particularly when there's a war going on.

Even after the war, the plotters were considered traitors by many non-Nazi Germans who recognized Hitler's evil. Not because the plotters tried to kill the leader of the Nazi party, but because they tried to kill the man who, for better or worse, was the leader of the nation.

Nazi Germany was not a republic with ideas of preserving individual liberties. Even many non-Nazis found such Western, Enlightenment ideals un-German. The tyrant concept was undeveloped, because the contrasting Enlightenment ideals were undeveloped -- not part of the culture or national identity -- certainly not among those near Hitler.

Rich Rostrom writes:

Soldiers (like police) are authorized to use force, even to kill. But if they feel free to use force or kill as they see fit personally - then civil order must fall. One gets Caesarism: where the army or its leader rules.

And what is the basis for authority then? Nothing more than having the physical power to use force. Instead of the rule of law, we have the arbitrary rule of whoever has the sword or the gun. One can hope that the people with the weapons mean well, but what if they are mistaken? Or worse yet, disagree with each other?

Through most of history, political progress has largely been achieved by establishing the belief that the wielders of force must subordinate their personal wills to the "civilian" political authority, legitimated by some higher principle such as dynastic succession or democratic election, even when they personally dislike the "legitimate" rulers.

OK, but the German army officers saw (or should have seen) clearly that the Nazi regime was evil - therefore they should have acted regardless of the law. Right?

Well, what is clear to one may be vague to another. Once the door is opened to the military taking political power for very good reasons, it can happen for less good reasons, or even highly debatable reasons. The bright line is gone.

Everyone should be afraid of that; the Wehrmacht officers were.

Tharms writes:

Clearly Americans are very queasy about the idea of tyrannicide. Look at all they've put up with over the last eight years.

Tharms writes:

Actually, a fairly descent sci-fi book was written with a thesis of why tyrannicide doesn't work. It's called Enemy of the State by F. Paul Wilson.

DJH writes:

The Terror.

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