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Senseless Death

A reflection on the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Suleimani.

Footage of the drone-fired missile strike on January 3 that obliterated Iranian general Qasem Suleimani instantly triggered a memory of World War II, when I was five years old in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Vividly engraved on my mind’s eye is the image of a large dead farm animal in our neighbour’s barn, “assassinated” by a bayonet-wielding “White Russian” soldier who had wandered up the river dike at Langerak, our village of refuge during the waning of the war. The childhood memory of that senseless killing became a lens through which I have viewed deliberate acts of violence ever since. The missile strike was also senseless killing, but this time a deliberate “targeted assassination” that has threatened to engulf the region in another cycle of useless war. 

Suleimani’s killing received intense media coverage, much from the typical American perspective that Iran is “our enemy” and Suleimani a terrorist perpetrator of violence against “us.”  A near book-length article in the New Yorker treated it as a “targeted killing” in routine modern spy-agency warfare (“Last Man Standing,” by Entous and Osnos, Feb. 10). In fact, joint Israeli Mossad and American CIA deliberation over a hit on Suleimani – called a “killing chain” – was cut short by President Trump’s impetuous order to kill.  Informed by that coverage, I reflect on this event from my own awareness of the deep history of assassination in the Middle East and from my field project residence in Umm al-Jimal, Jordan. 

Political murder by the weak
Assassination is as old as history. A famous instance, which I learned about in Sunday School soon after seeing the animal stabbed, is the story of Jael’s heroic hammering of the tent pin through Sisera’s temple while he lay sleeping in her tent (Judges 4). Instead of taking to heart the “lessons” of this Biblical story, I felt as sorry for Sisera as I did for that animal.  

The word “assassin” originated in the Middle East during the Crusades. Hasan-i-Sabah, who led a small Shi’ite sect opposing powerful Sunni rulers, from a mountain redoubt in Iran, sent stealth killers all over the Middle East to hit ruling heads of state. Legend had it that he regaled them with visions of heaven while they were high on hashish to steel their nerves before killing missions. Hence they were known as takers of Hashish, Hashishiyin in Arabic, which sounded like “assassin” to Crusaders. Ironically, Crusaders from Europe and Shi’ite Assassins from Iran functioned as collaborative jaws of a political vice that squeezed the life blood out of the Sunni states between Iran and Palestine. The name was new, but the practice as old as Ehud’s stabbing of Eglon (Judges 3) and Judas’ gang’s knifing of Romans. 

In current events, “targeted assassination” is a label for political murder used by weak states and stateless groups to engage powerful states in asymmetrical warfare. But leaders of strong states – Henry Kissinger and Ariel Sharon, in fact – condemned targeted assassinations as “terrorist.” To be clear, though I come from a tradition of calling the Dutch Underground’s killing of Nazi occupiers “heroic,” I oppose political murder, whether the cause is freedom or oppression. 

Political murder by the strong
In ancient literature, the slaying of the “monster” Humbaba, the guardian of the cedar forest in the Epic of Gilgamesh, is an example of a targeted killing. Though celebrated as a heroic victory, you can read between the lines to see that this murder was civilization’s license to deforest the “wilderness.” A famous Assyrian relief sculpture depicts King Ashurbanipal, renowned for preserving “Gilgamesh” in his library, drinking on his garden throne regaled by musicians. Look closely at this merry tableau and you will see a bloodied human head suspended from an iron ring in the branches of a tree. Carved in stone for all posterity, the macabre trophy killing, integral to the normal life routine of this ancient emperor, became engrained in our own civilizational heritage. 

As assassination has become normal practice among contemporary spy agencies (like the USA’s CIA and Israel’s Mossad), they adopted the term “targeted killing” to distinguish their “respectable” murders from the “terrorist” ones of their weak enemies (like Palestine’s Hamas, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and now also Suleimani’s Quds Brigade). One could fill an equivalent of a Viet Nam Veterans Memorial with the names of all who have died recently by targeted killings in the Middle East. One that comes close in type to Suleimani’s is Ghassan Kanafani’s, a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Though he had given up the PFLP’s violent strategies, his emotional literary works about Palestinians in exile were as threatening to the Israelis as the IEDs set by Suleimani’s Al-Quds Brigade were to the Americans. 

Senseless killing 
Such is my personal reflection on the targeted killing of Qasem Suleimani, perpetrated by the country in which I live. Its drones and missiles kill many others, not only those deemed “enemy combatants,” but also brides and grooms celebrating their weddings – the latter dubbed “collateral damage” in warspeak. Suleimani’s assassination flooded the streets of Iran with mourners, just as American parents shed tears for their children killed by IEDs set by the Al-Quds Brigade. As a historian, I am a critical thinker assigned to analyze underlying complexities of human relations; but I see these deaths through the eyes of my five-year old self, staring wide-eyed at that bayonetted animal, and cannot help but call them all wanton and senseless. Wanton in that they are cowardly, self-gratifying resorts to power in violation of laws held by states and by humanity. And senseless in that they are acts of stealth warfare that glorify violence and unleash floods of tears in a perpetual cycle, destroying prospects for peace.

  • Bert is Professor Emeritus of History and Archaeology at Calvin University where he taught Middle Eastern History and Archaeology from 1967 to 2018. He directs the Umm al-Jimal Archaeological Project in north Jordan.

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