The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Age Of Assassination

It’s forgotten now, but the invention of effective pistols created a period with a lot more assassinations.  Effective portable bombs made assassins even more effective. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination started World War I, is the most famous victim, but hardly the only one.

We’re in the start of a golden Age of assassination. It has gone largely unremarked because the victims have been nobodies, and mostly in the developing nations like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria and so on, though hardly limited to those war zones.

A large group of assassins have been drones (special forces hit squads are the other group.) Drones are not, as I have noted before, a technology of the rich and strong: a good mechanic can make a drone easily enough in their garage. Hezbollah has its own fleet of drones. Iran has invested in them. Turkey, while certainly a powerful nation is not a technological leader overall, but has become a leader in drones and especially autonomous drones.

Drones will get smaller, more deadly and harder to stop. More and more will become autonomous, so that they can’t be jammed.

Meanwhile, the NYTimes has a story about how Israel assassinated Iran’s top nuclear scientist:

Israel’s Mossad used an AI assisted 1 ton machine gun robot. Its parts were detached, smuggled into Iran and assembled inside Iran. The robot used facial recognition to recognize the target.

All of this tech is going to come back to bite our elites in the ass. As Dan points out, there’s no reason these types of technologies can’t be used to kill Western elites, and they will be. The reaction to then try and then clamp down on the technology will do huge harm to tech development, because the items needed to create a drone or stationary robot are simple, not complicated, and will become simpler and less complicated over time.

Ages of assassination aren’t pretty, and they increase political instability substantially. That isn’t always a bad thing, it depends if what’s on offer is better that the status quo, but it’s always a mess.

Technologies are never neutral and that is nowhere more true than technologies of violence. Firearms put a decisive end to the age of the knight, and allowed for the creation of mass democracy. Knights, when they became predominant did the opposite: they entrenched an age of aristocracy, because Knights were expensive as hell, and training to be a knight almost had to start in childhood.

How a technology starts is also not necessarily how it winds up being used predominantly. Consider the machine gun. For the first decades of its existence the machine gun was an offensive weapon: it was used by the Brits and then other colonial militaries to absolutely butcher native forces that dared to oppose them. It helped expand the British Empire and other colonial regimes.

Then came World War I, and it turned out that machine guns were actually a weapon of defense when both sides had them.

Drones have started as weapon by which elites terrorize the weak, and autonomous robots, especially, seem like a dream come true for the powerful. The great problem of power is always the Praetorian one: you need enforcers, and the more you insist on being far richer and out of touch with the commons, the more you need them, but the less you can trust them: whatever the pretense, they become mercenaries, and people who fight for money or for the right to loot and hurt people are never reliable.

Robots seem like the perfect solution, allowing elites to have a much smaller enforcement class; just the people who create and repair them. The real dream is that eventually loyal AIs will design and repair themselves, and non-elite humans will be completely unneeded. The elites will rule alone, with loyal robotic servants and no Praetorian problem or fears that in a revolution, the troops won’t shoot.

But an age of drone and autonomous robots, some of them as small as insects, but still deadly and operating in swarms, is not an age that seems likely to actually favor elites as much as they think, because, as noted earlier, it isn’t actually a hard tech: it’s hard to pioneer, yes, just as were early gunpowder weapons (which were used by Kings to destroy the power of the feudal nobility, since only they could afford enough cannon, and cannon trumped Medieval castles) but once it is pioneered, it will spread and it will be used against elites.

The only way to avoid that is to crack down, hard, on all the precursors, but since the precursors are so simple and basic to a technological society, doing so will make you backwards, and as with Japan completely controlling firearms, this only works if everyone does it everywhere in the world, otherwise one day the “White Ships” show up and you realize you’re helpless before them.

Simple, cheap, effective autonomous or semi-autonomous killing machines are an epochal military technology which is going to change everything if we can maintain societies capable of fielding them. Even in a semi-collapse, we may be able to do so, because they are, actually, simple.

The results are in the air, to be sure. No one in 1500, even, could predict all the results of firearms and the printing press.

But elite who think this will all to their way may find out, as they bleed out their last, just how wrong they were.

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Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – September 19, 2021


Ricardo’s Caveat


  1. Roger the cabin boy

    Well, lets hope so.

  2. Dan Lynch

    No doubt it is merely a question of time until a U.S. VIP is offed by a drone.

    A foreign country like Iran certainly has the technology to assassinate a U.S. VIP on U.S. soil, but what strategic purpose would it serve? Anyone using assassination as a tool will run into the same strategic problem that U.S. and Israel assassinations face — that assassination rarely changes anything, since individuals are almost always replaceable, and in fact, the assassination leads to a backlash that empowers hardliners.

    Hence, the most logical use of assassination will be as a false flag attack. That’s not to say that people will not do illogical things.

  3. bruce wilder

    I have personal acquaintance with one of the pioneering business corporations building surveillance drones for the Defense Department. For a long time, a key supplier was a specialized hobby shop. Drones and robots, too, have been (expensive) toys since the beginning of their development. The scariest demo of drones I have seen has been the lightshows developed to rival fireworks at events.

    Computers were originally a monopoly of states, universities and then large businesses, but they became a hobby and we have been in a long struggle the past twenty years whether the tech can be configured in a way that they cease to be empowering to the individual and, instead, just entangle one in dependencies, unwanted visibility and psuedo-addictions.

    People on the frontier of computing are alarmed by Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 (GPT-3), which has been on Microsoft’s Azure platform for roughly a year and can do amazing things. Its applications may be in prosaic “apps” devised by individuals and small groups.

    The one that worries me most is genetic engineering. It seems to be the highest tech there is, but as some of the most challenging bits become embodied in automated machinery, there is a real risk that it becomes an unsupervised hobby of a well-positioned individual before anyone notices. (Yes, I do think the balance of probabilities favors an engineering origin for our current pandemic.) Or, maybe just the hobby of billionaires is danger enough as the group re-inventing the Woolly Mammoth shows or the end-game beginning to play out around Monsanto’s Round-Up demonstrates.

    The attempt to blend genetic engineering, robotics and AI in creating a trans-human nobility looms ahead.

  4. bruce wilder

    assassination rarely changes anything

    Gavrilo Princep changed everything.

    It is harder to judge the assassinations of the American 1960s (JFK, RFK, MLK) because speculation leads to counterfactuals that just demonstrate a poverty of imagination, but consider where we are now, unable to find a leader of public spirit.

    The mass assassination of September 11 was hugely consequential.

  5. Ché Pasa

    The wonder is that the tactic hasn’t been used on Western elites before now when, as Ian points out, the technology has long been available and is relatively simple. No wonder our elites consider themselves to be invulnerable Masters of the Universe. For all intents and purposes, they are.

  6. Ché Pasa

    High level assassinations change everything, but not in predictable ways. Which may be one reason why it is rarely used. Even when it was used more frequently, the outcome was generally not what the assassins had in mind.

  7. Plague Species

    I thought it noteworthy Milley put the kabash on McDonald’s order to nuke China but allowed the order to assassinate Soleimani to be executed. Did he inform his Chinese paymasters the assassination of Soleimani was a mistake he let slip through and it wouldn’t happen again.

    The Chinese if they don’t want to attacked will probably have to assassinate Biden because I don’t think Milley will stop Biden from launching a Pearl Harbor against them like he stopped McDonald Trump. Biden means business with those nuclear subs for Australia.

  8. Plague Species

    True, Ché Pasa, We have the Batista Cuban worms in Miami and the CIA to thank for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. JFK couldn’t have gotten it done like LBJ got it done. For that matter, they also gave us gangster rap and crack cocaine. One single act, an assassination, did all of that and more — a gift that keeps on giving even today.

  9. Plague Species

    If you’re going to do an assassination, you don’t go for a politician, you go for who owns the politicians — the wealthy elite. Billionaires are a finite group. I think it would be great to see a pandemic of billionaire assassinations, don’t you? I’m not being flippant, I really do think it would be great.

  10. Willy

    Chris Hedges mentions that when power is isolated from the consequences of their own folly or malice, that their competencies will always atrophy. As do others say here.
    Nothing keeps them in check. But I’m not aware of him explaining why the downtrodden tend to martyr themselves against innocents.

    The Columbine shooters were called psychopaths by many so-called professionals. Pretty lame. Not to minimize the tragedy, but a more plausible explanation is that they’d become nihilistic martyrs (on top of all the video game killing culture). They’d witnessed firsthand who the system rewards, and that the bystanders who far outnumber the rewarded bullies won’t even defend their own, let alone retaliate or change the system. And so thus the shooters went after the bystanders instead of the bullies.

    The 911 terrorists took it up a notch by targeting high profile business and government buildings. But I’m wondering if more precise strikes towards infamously hated CEO individuals and their political henchmen wouldn’t have yielded better results. As it is, the American citizen “bystander” has gotten stuck with a huge bill of lives and treasure thanks to their PTBs decisions, while the actual PTB bullies have been rewarded yet again, thus muddying up the message the terrorists were trying to send.

  11. coloradoblue

    Consider the machine gun…it was used by the Brits and then other colonial militaries to absolutely butcher native forces…

    And not just opposing military forces: “Between WWI and WWII, bombing and strafing had become an accepted policy, and the Royal Air Force regularly used air attacks against rebellious parts of the Empire. In Iraq, an RAF officer bragged: “They [Arabs and Kurds] now know that within 45 minutes a full-sized village…can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.” In 1921, an RAF officer reported on one operation: “the tribesmen and their families ran into the lake, making a good target for the machineguns.”

  12. Plague Species

    It’s a shame machine guns haven’t been used more in assassinations. Maybe that will change. You never know.

  13. Hugh

    We don’t need drones. The US is drowning in fire arms. There are hundreds of millions of them here. This last weekend 43 people were shot in Chicago alone. Yet assassinations, at least political assassinations, are quite rare in the US. Maybe if more of those guns were aimed at Mitch McConnell et al, they would suddenly find a virtue in real gun control. But as long as it is only schmucks shooting schmucks, they have no problem with all those guns. Indeed all that fear and anxiety is a plus because it takes attention off of them.

  14. different clue

    @Dan Lynch,

    The time could come when a “disgruntled loved one” could use a drone to kill a major executive of an insurance company who killed his “dearly departed” by denying coverage.

  15. different clue


    I remember reading that at least one of the Columbine Shooters was on an SSRI at the time . . . possibly sertraline . . . which could have had a brain-re-arranging effect on him and his behavior.

  16. different clue

    @Che’ Pasa,

    The Likud-facilitated assassination of Rabin achieved exactly what Likud or at least Netanyahoo and the Netanyahoodlums had it mind.

  17. Mark Pontin

    @ Ian —

    Yup. I’ve been saying the same things for almost twenty years — and I used to go to places like Sandia Labs to see these toys in their early days of R&D. (At tech magazines, I was usually the writer who covered global security and military tech.)

    I recall a trip to Sandia in July 2001 when I heard every department I talked to saying, essentially, ‘we’re really worried about al Qaeda, but we’re afraid nobody in the government will take serious action to change BAU till the bodies start piling up’. In the Albuquerque Airport on the way home, I looked around me at how easy it was to get into boarding lounges and onto planes then — and in those days it was like being in a big crowded railway station in the mid-20th century — and I thought ‘ I wonder how long this will last.’

    It’ll be the same deal with drones. (Unlike you, I believe the required technology is so simple and widely distributed already that there’s no way whatsoever it can be repressed: cellphone chips with their inbuilt GPS systems have made perfectly adequate brains for DIY drones for at least a decade now. ) Current ‘elites’ won’t do anything different till things actually kick off.

    As Coloradoblue comments, the machine gun provides a historical analogue. There’s a book called , THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE MACHINE GUN, by John Ellis, a British historian, published in 1976. For anybody who hasn’t read it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

    Ian: “…an age of drone and autonomous robots, some of them as small as insects, but still deadly and operating in swarms, is not an age that seems likely to actually favor elites as much as they think.”

    One of the lessons of the development of the machine gun was that it enabled WWI and the subsequent overthrow of the existing order in most European countries. The technology was so democratized by the 1920-30s that you had types like Al Capone wandering around the streets of American cities blasting away at their enemies with them.

  18. Mark Pontin

    Of course, the effects of WWI continued to reverberate — WWII is essentially the same war, with the great powers taking twenty years off from hostilities, because the attrition of capabilities and the mass deaths had been so severe, before they went at it again.

    One useful way to picture all this is to imagine a graph of the historical curve of the lethality of military technologies.

    That curve can be seen as starting to rise rapidly upwards in the mid-19th century as entrepreneur-inventors start to work to bring the Industrial Revolution to the military realm by industrializing slaughter. Once they have, the curve arcs rapidly upwards and keeps rising with ever greater death tolls from new refinements and developments, till WWII and the achievement of nuclear weapons.

    With nuclear weapons, the possible devastation is now in the realm of the impossibly large — vast, potentially planetary devastation.

    The curve takes a downward turn because no further development in this direction is effectively possible –and, not incidentally, the development of thermonuclear weapons has required the development of the first electronic computers* to model them — and now starts moving away from the realm of the very large towards the realm of the very small: drone swarms, nanotech, biogenetic technologies.

    *Computers are another technology, like machine guns, that begins as a military technology and gets democratized.)

  19. nihil obstet

    Assassination has been an elite tool throughout the 20th c. Elite discourse has limited the term “assassination” to the killing of western government leaders by disturbed loners — only crazy conspiracy theorists believe anyone else was involved, they assure us.

    I commented on the “Lack of Belief” post above on the Huey Long documentary I just watched. The PMC did themselves proud about Long — after carrying on about he did some good things, but the way he did them was unacceptable, they all said that everyone was talking about assassination before it happened and that, although of course it was awful, the assassination was a good thing in saving democracy.

    There’s been new evidence that the western “democracies” assassinated Dag Hammarskjold as he supported the decolonization of Africa. The Congo, with its scant number of experienced educated leaders, was decapitated by the assassination of Patrice Lumumba by those same governments.

    In the 60s, the assassination of political elites who might leave the reservation was accompanied by lots of small plane crashes and mysterious suicides. And there were the deaths of community leaders, activists, and organizers.

    Elites won the last forty years of acquiescence by eliminating dissent and being clear that replacements would meet the same fate.

  20. different clue

    @ nihil obstet,

    In exactly the vein of “small planes crashing”, here is an article about the Senator Wellstone plane crash.

    It comes from the legacy blog Rigorous Intuition 2.0, from which I bring things here now and then.

    Rigorous Intuition groups its articles into several categories, listed at the right side of the homepage. One of those categories is ” assassinations” . This article comes from that group of articles.

  21. bruce wilder

    Assassination by mysterious plane crash is probably fairly common.

    The assassination of union leaders and labor activists is quite common in some countries, like Columbia; I remember it was briefly an issue affecting the ratification of a free trade treaty with Columbia. Of course, back in the gilded age, Rockefellers hired guns and used them. Henry Ford had Harry Bennett, a brutal enforcer on staff — called Harry’s unit, the service department.

    Assassination and kidnapping remain fairly common in Russian business, a legacy of the transition to capitalism and a continuation of extreme authoritarian politics in some localities.

    The assassination of journalists is also quite common in some places. In the U.S., it is more common to simply end the career of anyone competent. I think the presumption that Michael Hastings, the journalist who brought down Stanley McChrystal and embarrassed David Petraeus, was assassinated in a mysterious early morning car crash in 2013 is reasonable.

  22. Hugh

    That’s how they got Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

  23. Not the wizard of oz

    Assassination as suicide. Anthony Bourdain down the memory hole.
    Happens every day.

  24. bruce wilder

    That’s how they got Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

    packing peanuts

  25. Thomas B Golladay

    Decentralize, decentralize, decentralize. That is how you defeat an assassination strategy.

    Taliban learned this quickly to the point they were able to avoid drone strikes 90% of the time, said strikes hitting innocent civilians and growing their support.

    NVA also did so. Their entire strategy was wide decentralized command and mobile warfare. By these means they were able to keep their supply lines open and the US and ARVN on the defensive and destroyed in detail.

    Other groups that are worth a shit also are doing so. By these means they are able to stay relevant and over time grow stronger and win.

  26. Plague Species

    By these means they are able to stay relevant and over time grow stronger and win.

    Win what? A doomed planet? A starving population? Facing China and its aspirations directly? That’s some spoils for the victor.

  27. Jessica

    Cheap, easy to make assassination drones won’t just be a weapon for less powerful nations. The real impact will be when they are a weapon for the less powerful within nations.
    For a sci-fi treatment of this, The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson is good. Long book and killer drone swarms just one small part of it but the book as a whole is interesting.

  28. DMC

    I for one I’m actively looking forward to the day when certain parties in the Hamptons get a taste of their own medicine in the form of some drone off the shelf from Best Buy . enhanced with a pound or so of C4. Blowback can take any number of forms and it’s only a matter of time before the technology is so ubiquitous as to make this a common scenario

  29. russell1200

    Naked Capitalism posted a link to where they are talking about hobbyist types using CRISPR technology to do genetic bioengineering. Has bad news written all over it.

    So drones make for an interesting delivery method – for sure.

    But the available “payload” is also expanding.

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