For a long time I could not wrap my mind around the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. Later I had trouble believing that Sergei Skripal had been poisoned by the Kremlin, until the evidence became incontrovertible. I could not explain to myself why Moscow had gone to such trouble and taken so much risk in order to get rid of relatively minor figures. Eventually I admitted to myself that Litvinenko’s intention to expose Putin’s connections to organized crime might have seemed to the latter a compelling reason to get rid of the former. I still could not rationalize the Skripal case. I gave up, telling myself to stop rationalizing paranoia and human evilness in general.
Then I came across an explanation that seems to work for me. It’s frightening and I wouldn’t have been able to stomach it, say, five years ago. Here it is: The poisonings reported so far are the tip of an iceberg. From the media, we know about other suspicious deaths that may have been assassinations; plus, a number of deaths that should have been investigated may have gone unreported. In other words, what if we only get to observe the assassins’ failures, and what if their failure rate is low?
Now suppose that some dictator had a small but efficient hit squad at his disposal. Over the years, he would be tempted to use it to “solve” more and more “problems.” The overuse would damage the killing machine. Success breeds complacency; complacency leads to negligence; negligence ends in fiasco. But even with a constant failure rate, scaling up the operation would produce more instances of failure. Perhaps half a dozen “liquidations” per year could remain undetected for a half a dozen years. Crank them up by a factor of ten, and an embarrassing flop happens within the first year and jeopardizes the whole enterprise.
Perhaps murder can become an addiction after all, while killing a particularly dangerous enemy could be an act of self-realization.