Saturday 21 April 2018

A history of fatal distraction

The fair sex has always been as deadly as the male. So why do Kim Jong-nam's alleged killers shock us

One of the women arrested by Malaysian police (left). Kim Jong-un (right)
One of the women arrested by Malaysian police (left). Kim Jong-un (right)

Clare Mulley

'Today I shot Lenin," Fanny Kaplan, a dark-haired, 28-year-old Russian revolutionary, recorded in a police statement, in late August 1918. "I did it on my own."

A few days earlier, the Bolshevik leader had been leaving a meeting at the Hammer and Sickle factory in Moscow, when Kaplan had called out to him.

Lenin turned towards her. She fired three shots in quick succession at the man she considered a traitor to the socialist cause.

The first bullet missed its target, passing through his coat and hitting a colleague. The next two were more effective, one lodging in Lenin's left shoulder, the other cutting through his neck to puncture his left lung.

Despite the severity of his injuries, Lenin survived. Kaplan was arrested and interrogated, but refused to implicate anyone else.

Lenin was shocked and fearful that there might be other would-be assassins plotting. He refused to leave the fortress-like Kremlin to have the bullets removed, and it is speculated that they contributed to the strokes that killed him in 1924.

Almost a century later and the image of the female assassin has lost none of its potency.

The killing last week of Kim Jong-nam, the older half-brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at Kuala Lumpur Airport, has gripped the world. The exiled Kim had criticised his half-brother's ability to lead the country. He was seen as an embarrassment, traitor and potentially a rival leader, and he - like Lenin - felt that his life was in danger.

But what has given the greatest cause for shock is that the murder was apparently carried out by two young women. Police have detained two female suspects in their twenties. Both are thought to have claimed to police that they were persuaded to attack Kim as a "prank".

We don't know yet whether these women were informed assassins, hapless dupes or in between. But their defence of ignorance has precedents. "I played the stupid little housewife," claimed Nina von Stauffenberg, wife of Claus, the would-be assassin of Hitler, after her arrest in 1944, saying she was taken up with "children and nappies and dirty laundry".

British female special agents captured during the war often took a similar line, some surviving execution as a result.

Women are not expected to kill in cold blood. Yet women have done just this throughout history. Perhaps the most famous assassin was the Hebrew widow Judith, who talked her way into her enemy's camp, bewitching and beheading the invading Assyrian general Holofernes. Seductive and virtuous, victim and aggressor, Judith set the standard for deadly women.

The more fascinating story about their political motivations is often lost in the focus on their looks. We fetishise them, delighting in tales of sex, subterfuge and feminine wiles.

It's why the name Charlotte Corday endures. The 25-year-old assassinated Jean-Paul Marat, one of the radical Jacobin voices of the French Revolution, in 1793, in the hope that it would end the violence. She sweet-talked her way into his house under the pretence of having information about a coup and then stabbed him with a six-inch kitchen knife while he was sitting in the bath. Like Kaplan, Corday claimed to have been working independently.

Corday was guillotined four days later. Her insistence that her fatal stabbing of Marat with a single blow was down to luck, not skill, only increased her mystique. After her head was severed from her shoulders it was reportedly taken from the basket and publicly slapped.

Special punishments, it seems, are reserved for female assassins. Once it was clear that Kaplan was not going to incriminate anyone else in her would-be attempt on Lenin, she was steered into a Kremlin courtyard and shot in the back of her head. Her body was then placed in a barrel and set alight.

Yet solo female assassins have traditionally been harder for the public to rationalise than those working under orders. In 1914, a 33-year-old Russian, Khioniya Guseva, attempted to kill Grigori Rasputin. She stabbed him in the abdomen, shouting: "I have killed the antichrist!" but the famously resilient faith healer to Tsar Nicholas II managed to stagger away and survive. Apprehended, she was found insane and detained in an asylum.

Yet when Rasputin was finally killed by a group of male conspirators less than two years later, no questions were raised about their mental state.

Violet Gibson, the daughter of an Irish politician, was also acting alone when she fired a gun at Benito Mussolini in Rome in 1926. And Sara Jane Moore, an FBI informant on the radical left, who attempted to shoot American President Gerald Ford in 1975, claimed she hoped to independently trigger a revolution.

Most political assassins, however, do not operate alone. The Israeli secret service, Mossad, used female operatives in the 1970s. At the beginning of the same decade Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin helped co-found the German Baader-Meinhof Gang.

Along with other female members, they committed a series of assassinations, sometimes hiding weapons in a baby's pushchair. If people were less likely to suspect a woman, they certainly wouldn't expect to find machine-guns secreted under piles of blankets.

That is the great advantage of the female assassin: they arouse less suspicion. A bonus can be the perceived snub by their enemies, who are insulted that a comrade has died at the hands of a mere woman.

In 1954, the Puerto Rican independence fighter Lolita Lebron led an armed assault on the US House of Representatives, wounding five members of Congress. 'When Terror Wore Lipstick'' screamed the front page of The Washington Post, accompanied by a photograph of the attractive Lebron. It is hard to imagine a male assassin's appearance getting the same attention.

But perhaps the deadliest assassination was in 1989. Rajiv Gandhi became the prime minister of India after the murder of his mother, Indira, in 1984. Seven years later, he was assassinated while campaigning. Bending down to touch Gandhi's feet, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, a suicide bomber with a militant Tamil group, detonated a belt loaded with 700g of explosives under her clothes. The blast killed Gandhi and Rajaratnam and at least 25 others.

The ability of women to approach targets is well-documented. Indeed, Isil has recently started to use female suicide bombers, most notably 26-year-old Hasna Aitboulahcen who blew herself up following the November 2015 attacks on Paris.

Given the number of female assassins in history, it might seem surprising that the gender of Kim Jong-nam's alleged murderers has made headlines. Yet it is our enduring belief that women don't kill that has enabled them to be so successful. Now perhaps it's time to open our eyes.

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