Assassins and Thugs: Been There, Done That

By | January 14, 2019 | 0 Comments

Thuggee Method of Strangling

History is a vast early-warning system, as Norman Cousins taught us. It gives us valuable insights into current events. Granted, history never repeats itself exactly. But it helps us recognize the essential similarities between current problems and related problems in the past. In this way, we will be better able to find solutions.

The Assassins.

The Assassins or Hashshashin were what we now call terrorists. They were a Muslim sect founded about 1090. The name may refer to their use of hashish. Our words “assassin” and “assassinate” are derived from their name. Another theory is that their name comes from the word “assaas,” meaning “foundation.” This is eerily similar to Al Qaeda, meaning “the base.” Déjà vu, indeed.

The organization spread throughout the Middle East, including Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. It gained power through murder and intimidation of those it considered “infidels” or insufficiently religious, including Muslim rulers. Apparently even Sultan Saladin, the opponent of Richard the Lionhearted, was intimidated into letting the Assassins do as they pleased. At least two caliphs of Baghdad were murdered by the group, as well as the Christian patriarch of Jerusalem and Crusader leader Conrad of Montferrat. Prince Edward, later King Edward I of England (the king in “Braveheart”), is said to have been wounded by an Assassin’s dagger.

The Assassins were equal-opportunity murderers − they killed Christians as well as Sunni and Shia Muslims. Their objective was power, which they clothed in religious rhetoric. Does this sound familiar?

Assassins were adept at infiltrating their enemies’ camps, then stabbing the enemy leader. Often these raids were suicidal, with the murderer having no hope of escape. They rejected poison or bows and arrows, which would allow the murderer to escape. Of course, guns and explosives had not come into use, but stabbing an enemy in public was as suicidal as strapping on a bomb is to a modern terrorist. In one famous incident, the leader of the Assassins impressed a visitor by ordering a follower to jump to his death − which he promptly did. The Assassins were sometimes called “holy killers.” Yes, this does sound familiar.

The leader of the Assassins was called the Old Man of the Mountain, referring to the organization’s headquarters in the mountaintop fortress of Alamut, which was located in northern Iran. The fortress was never conquered by Muslim armies despite repeated attempts.

The Assassins continued their reign of terror for two centuries − until they made a fatal error. The Mongols under Genghis Khan and his successors conquered much of Eastern and Western Asia and even Eastern Europe. Unwisely, the Assassins murdered a Mongol leader. This infuriated the Mongol warlord Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis. He was not a man to antagonize. He laid siege to Alamut and in 1272 utterly destroyed it. The Syrian branch of the Assassins was annihilated by the Turks a year later.

There is no indication that Hulagu Khan ever considered “sitting down to talk” with the Assassins, or trying to “see their point of view,” or dealing with their “legitimate grievances.” Instead, Hulagu Khan sat down and planned how to destroy them.

Their power broken, the Assassins faded from history, leaving us their name, as well as a lesson in how homicidal, suicidal terrorists can be defeated. Such groups continue their terrorism until they make the mistake of awakening a sleeping giant − that is, unless the giant is so lazy and apathetic that he goes back to sleep again.

The Thugs.

Our word “thug” comes from the Sanskrit word for “thief.” The Thugs were members of Thuggee, a network of criminal gangs that terrorized India from the 13th to the 19th centuries. The Thugs befriended travelers, then robbed them and strangled them with a scarf or cord. The bodies were hidden, often by throwing them down a well. This did little to improve the quality of the water supply.

The Thugs were mainly Hindu and worshipped Kali, goddess of destruction. But there were apparently some Sikh and Muslim members, an early-day example of diversity. Their motivation was both religious and monetary. The Thugs were suppressed by the British in the 19th century, using both police and the military.

A fictionalized but instructive depiction of the Thugs is presented in the film “Gunga Din.” The climax of the story occurs when a band of Thugs is destroyed by the British army. When I saw that film as a child, I first developed my love for the sound of bagpipes. To this day, they represent for me the approach of rescuers intent on freeing hostages from a murderous cult − not a bad idea to implant in a child’s mind.

Black Watch piper, Iraq

In addition to the Thugs, the British also got rid of suttee, the Hindu custom of burning a widow alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. This was done to express grief, and also so that the husband’s family would not have to share the inheritance with the widow.

The British commander-in-chief in India, General Sir Charles Napier (1782-1853), was informed that suttee was an ancient and accepted custom with a religious basis, and that suppressing it would cause resentment. (Sound familiar?) Unimpressed, he replied:

You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks, and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

I am not an admirer of multiculturalism. But if we must have it, let us practice the kind of multiculturalism advocated by General Napier.

Lessons learned.

It does not take a vivid imagination to see similarities between the Assassins and Thugs and the extremist Muslim terrorists of today. The Thugs were clearly criminals who hid behind a religious facade. Standard police methods, with some military help, were sufficient to rid India of them. The great majority of Indians were grateful to the British for doing so.

The Assassins, on the other hand, more closely resembled our current enemies. They did not respect national boundaries. They gained power through intimidation. They declared their enemies to be irreligious. They made the wealthy and powerful feel vulnerable. They evoked suicidal loyalty in their followers through the use of perverted religion. They resisted repeated attacks by major rulers and large armies. It took the Mongols to destroy them.

In places where terrorism resembles the lesser threat of the Thugs, ordinary police methods may suffice to suppress it. This is especially true if we can enlist the support of the majority of people, who are themselves victimized by the terrorists. But where terrorism resembles the international, suicidal, fanatical, power-hungry Assassins, overwhelming force equivalent to the Mongols may be needed. This is not a pleasant thought, but history teaches that the alternative may be even more unpleasant.

Am I suggesting that, like the Mongols, we should resort to indiscriminate slaughter? Absolutely not. But I am saying that we should have reacted with unconcealed anger and prompt retaliation when our ambassador and three other Americans were assassinated in Benghazi. Instead, we barely reacted at all. Do you imagine that this makes our embassies and consulates safer? Do you imagine that this makes us more respected in the world?

Sleeping giants are avoided only if they show some signs of waking up. Otherwise they are merely objects of contempt.

At the very least, we should be able to call terrorism by its name, and not hide behind mealy-mouthed doublespeak and cowardly cover-ups. In one notorious incident, Hillary Clinton declared that we didn’t lose a single person in Libya. No, we lost four. President Obama and his subordinates were reluctant even to say the word “terrorism.” The only risk they presented to the Benghazi terrorists is that the terrorists might have injured themselves laughing at us.

President Trump, on the contrary, reminds me of General Napier. I can almost hear the carpenters building the gallows.

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