Who gave the order?


When it comes to the question of the chain of command in political matters, I am reminded of the 12th century story of Thomas Becket.

Authoritarian leaders of nations these days don’t like to get their hands dirty. Instead, they tend to surround themselves with sycophants who can almost read their minds and then go out of their way to fulfil what they believe to be the leaders’ desires.

So when some dirty deed is done, the head honcho can then say, “I didn’t order it, it wasn’t me; it was the army or the police who fired at the crowd/tortured dissidents/detained political opponents without trial, etc.”

Perhaps the best example would be what happened when King Henry II, who desired absolute power over both Church and State, tried to rein in his ex-Chancellor, the dissenting Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Both wrestled with each other over a number of jurisdictional issues; matters reached a head in 1170 after Becket excommunicated a couple of bishops who had supported the King. This from Wikipedia:

After these reports of Becket’s activities, Henry is said to have raised his head from his sickbed and roared a lament of frustration. The King’s exact words are in doubt and several versions have been reported. The most commonly quoted, as handed down by “oral tradition”, is “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”,[6] but according to historian Simon Schama this is incorrect: he accepts the account of the contemporary biographer Edward Grim, writing in Latin, who gives us “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”[7][8] Many variations have found their way into popular culture.

Whatever the King said, it was interpreted as a royal command, and four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton, set out to confront the Archbishop of Canterbury. On 29 December 1170 they arrived at Canterbury. According to accounts left by the monk Gervase of Canterbury and eyewitness Edward Grim, they placed their weapons under a sycamore tree outside the cathedral and hid their mail armour under cloaks before entering to challenge Becket.[9] The knights informed Becket he was to go to Winchester to give an account of his actions, but Becket refused. It was not until Becket refused their demands to submit to the king’s will that they retrieved their weapons and rushed back inside for the killing.[9] Becket, meanwhile, proceeded to the main hall for vespers. The four knights, wielding drawn swords, caught up with him in a spot near a door to the monastic cloister, the stairs into the crypt, and the stairs leading up into the quire of the cathedral, where the monks were chanting vespers.

Beckett was assassinated.

The point is Henry probably did not have to issue a direct command to his knights such as “Force Beckett to fall in line or kill him”. He knew he didn’t have to spell it out in black and white. The loyal knights, however, believed they could read Henry’s mind and they took it upon themselves to carry out what they believed would please Henry.

In the same way, authoritarian leaders these days would rarely sully themselves by issuing direct orders to carry out repressive acts and torture or to indulge in corrupt acts or go to war. They often believe that their trusted aides or the people around them would curry favour and see to it that the dear leaders’ wishes, whether explicit or implicit, are carried out.

This way, there is nothing in black and white that would hold the leaders accountable for their deeds if they were later hauled up for investigation.

So when authoritarian leaders say they didn’t order this or that repressive or dastardly deed, pardon me if I puke.

Please help to support this blog if you can.

Read the commenting guidlelines for this blog.
Notify of

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Pardon me too, if I puke…
Seems like I have been puking and spitting a lot of late (ask Jong why)

telur dua

Hey, Toon has nothing to do with it.

I gave the order and Bob’s my Uncle, see?


Just like the sucker in PM’s office who gave the order to remove the crucifixes? LOL!

peter chew

… similar to … get rid of a certain Mongolian Problem…(?)


UMNO will banish any person that is not perform according to their manifesto. This is Malaysia brother


When the rulers “hate somebody”, official are more than happy to do “massive cleanup” their path if the “somebody” are strong contender or blocking their way. Sometime, this official will displace the rulers when their power growth too strong.


Anil, if you are referring to a certain event in 1987, well, the ex-igp defence of the ex-pm is excellent strategy. Questioning the police action will be considered an insult… That will make a certain NGO not very happy. In other words we are indirectly told to shut up after the ex-igp have spoken.


That’s the doctrine of “plausible deniability”, isn’t it?

The wikipedia article mentions Becket’s murder: