Tyrannocide – A Pledge

When one thinks about the event that happened 40 years ago today, it might be a good occasion to reconsider tyrannicide, i.e. the right to assassinate a tyrannical dictator. On February 1st, 1979, Ajatollah Khomeini entered an airplane in Paris, where he lived in political asylum, and returned after 15 years to Tehran. Iran was suffering from political vacuum after Shah Rezah Pahlevi had abandoned the Peacock throne, and the poor and angry mob was raiding the streets. Khomeini quickly picked up this unique chance, presenting himself as the people’s savior and turned from an islamic scholar to the “supreme leader” of the country. Initially sugarcoating his real intentions with the promise of political freedom, democracy, civil rights and an equal share of the countries wealth to everybody, he soon let fall down his camouflage and without remorse announced his unsatiable appetite for tyrannical power. He ordered the assassination of everyone he considered an political enemy, and openly declared that jurisdiction should strictly follow Allah’s command. Political opposition (such as the Tudeh party, or the Mujahedin-al-Khalk) he declared apostasy (moharab), and its representatives to be killed with or without trial. Estimates amount to several tens of thousands, who were guilty of nothing more than keeping their intellectual independence and were killed by Khomeini’s thugs for this “crime”.

So with our current knowledge it is clear that anyone who would have killed Khomeini would have earned great merits for deliberating the Iranian people from tyranny. And indeed, when in the afternoon of February 1st 1979 the airplane with the Ayatollah on board entered Iranian territory, there were fears among the passengers – Khomeini was accompanied by several political allies and reporters such as the German Peter Scholl Latour – that the air defense troops still bound by oath to loyalty to the Shah might shoot them off the sky.

Its somehow a tragedy, that at this moment the army was already paralyzed by the defection of their supreme commander, and apparently none of the lower ranks had the courage of committing a proactive tyrannicide against Khomeini.

Tyrannicide has been morally justified by several politicians, philosophers and theologists, such as Thomas de Aquin, Plutarch, Benjamin Franklin, John of Salisbury, Abraham Lincoln or John Milton. The German writer Frederik Schiller in his ballad “The Pledge” (German: “Die Bürgschaft”) showed the high moral standard of the central character, Damonius, who is caught after an attempted assassination of the gruesome tyrant Dionysius.

Die Buergschaft (engl.: The Pledge) by Fredrik Schiller. One of the rather few cases that a German thinker morally defends a tyrannocide.

But in the cases of the airplane which carried Ayatollah Khomeini back to Iran, and the idea of shooting them down with a ground-to-air anti-aircraft missile one has to partially understand the dilemma of the air defenses troops and their commanders: Perhaps not even in the darkest imagination could they foresee in January 1979 the scale of atrocities, violence, tyranny, which the Islamic leaders would commit against the Iranian people during the next 40 years. The idea to prevent a crime by arresting (or eliminating) the criminals before they become active is still a fantasy in a Spielberg Movie “Minority Report”. But for a political crime (like tyrannic dictatorships) which involves the destruction of the life of so many innocent people, this would be a great gift to humankind.

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