Associated Press photographer Burhan Obzilici recently won the World Press Photo of the Year award for his striking image of off-duty police officer Mevlut Mert Altintas standing over the dead body of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov. In the photo, Karlov’s murderer is frozen in rage, mouth half-open, screaming in vindication; in a highly symbolic and somewhat emblematic stance, Altintas’ left hand points directly upwards, evoking some higher force and sense of purpose, while his right, holding the gun, points directly down, toward our worldly realm. The image sent shockwaves throughout the world not only because of its daunting imagery, but also because of its ominous foreshadowing of what could be coming. The overwhelming feeling of alienation and isolation that pervades the global stage has already begun to bear rotten fruit. Although terrorist attacks have been a linchpin strategy of fringe groups for years, the resurgence of high-profile political assassinations is a new phenomenon, and it should scare us just as much as terrorism. It points to a return of a political discourse governed by force and unpredictability and spells a rejection of the best yields of the postmodern, liberal global order: structure, constancy, and democratic hierarchy.
Videos depicting the moments preceding and following the award-winning image show Atlintas shouting “Allahu akbar” after shooting the Russian ambassador dead, followed by “Do not forget Aleppo, do not forget Syria” in Turkish. The piercing call for revenge sends shivers down viewers’ spines and evokes atrocities of histories past. One hundred and two years ago, on June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian nationalist and member of the Slav ultra-nationalist paramilitary group Black Hand, ran up to a royal motorcade in the streets of Sarajevo (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and fired several rounds. His target: Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Although Ferdinand was not particularly well-liked within aristocratic circles, his death would set into motion a series of ultimatums and miscommunications between nations that devolved into the July Crisis of 1914, and ultimately resulted in World War I.
Unlike WWII, the first world war did not evolve out of fundamental ideological differences — out of deep questions of what it is to be human and how we want to structure our societies; rather, WWI developed out of a series of diplomatic blunders, misperceptions, and nations unwilling to compromise on simple issues, behaviors which are not foreign to many current global powers. The drawing of this parallel is not an attempt to incite fear or to prophesy the coming of another world war; nonetheless, it should serve as a reminder to keep us on guard. Although a few months have passed since Karlov’s shooting and the world has not yet descended into complete chaos, the normalization of political violence perpetrated by a few individuals could spell disaster for the near future. As Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes.”
Just this month, among the incessant headlines of Trumpian antics, a rather peculiar story emerged: Kim Jong-nam, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, was mysteriously killed inside the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. With all the makings of a Le Carre novel, emerging new details depict a bizarrely coordinated attack: Two women were apparently fooled into thinking they were in a TV prank and were told to throw a liquid at Jong-nam’s face. The liquid, as a later autopsy revealed, was VX, one of the deadliest chemical weapons created by man — so deadly it was banned under the 1993 chemical weapons convention. Curiosity and sensationalism aside, the assassination — although its ulterior motives are still not clear — illustrates the resurgence of high-profile political killings. Although this type of action is not unexpected coming from North Korean agents, the liberty that is being taken to push the boundaries of what is internationally and politically acceptable is frightening.
Already, a diplomatic row has broken out between Malaysia and North Korea. Malaysia is adamant that the DPRK was directly responsible and has responded by removing its ambassador from Pyongyang and summoning the North Korean ambassador to Malaysia for questioning. In return, North Korea has blamed Malaysia for the killing and harshly condemned the country for undertaking an autopsy without its permission. Already, one North Korean has been arrested for involvement in the murder, and two more are wanted, one of whom is a DPRK embassy official. This exchange is reminiscent of what occurred between Austria-Hungary and Serbia in the days following the killing of Franz Ferdinand: endless blame games, miscommunication, and overall confusion. Even more worrying, as the narrative of WWI also evinces, is that such a conflict can expand beyond the initial catalyst: Failed diplomacy and escalating tension between smaller states can spiral into a global crisis that entangles all nations.
The advancement of political agendas via radical, internationally unacceptable, and clandestine methods is not exclusive to high-profile assassinations, although those tend to be the ones that cause the fastest, most extensive mayhem. The recent scandal of Russian hacking into the American presidential election is further evidence of the continuing abandonment of established diplomatic practices in exchange for radical, surreptitious methods of geo-political advancement. Once again, history rhymes; the use of covert agents to meddle in a foreign democratic process is slightly too reminiscent of the Cold War methods of the 20th century. Yet, this time around, it seems as if Russia’s actions are bolder and more blatant than before. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the US used surreptitious means to meddle in third parties in order to gain their influence and win an ideological war. Yet now, Russia, if the claims are true, has struck directly into the heart of the US’ most sacred ritual: the democratic process. The Cold War remained so called because neither the USSR nor the US had the audacity to act directly against each other militarily, with the abundant presence of nuclear weapons on either side keeping both in check; yet even in this more indirect conflict, the world nonetheless came to the brink of nuclear annihilation multiple times.
The current global political arena continues to reward those with the most boldness, fearlessness, and impudence. This is a recipe for disaster. It is a world where those without scruples are becoming increasingly more successful. Another one of Russia’s recent actions, the annexation of Crimea, is yet another example: By taking the territory through force, Russia surprised an international arena that has become lax in the enforcement of its expectations of state actors, and thus was able to achieve its goal with relative ease and little backlash. This is a dangerous, slippery slope: The more successful these types of attitudes become, the more incentive there is for others to act similarly.
This is where the more ominous side of Twain’s quote reveals itself. We cannot hide behind the safety of established norms, and of events past, behind the supposition that rational actors will prevent the unthinkable from coming into being, as they have done before. Just as we cannot presuppose that the world will devolve into war because a political figure was assassinated, we cannot presuppose that worse won’t happen for less; who knows what event, when, and where, might trigger the next catastrophe. It is thus crucial that we make sure the foundations upon which the diplomatic, international order rests remain sturdy, and that we do not allow the proliferation of a violent political culture. Twain’s quote carries significant relevance, and it should remind us to keep on guard, to never stay complacent. This new age, although rhyming often with history past, has already shown that the ‘unthinkable’ and the ‘unprecedented’ are mere words. We must learn from history, but must not limit our precautions to its boundaries. Although atrocities of the worst kind have already befallen the world, our verse in time might contain that which has never been written before. If there was ever an hour for vigilance, it is now.