ST. PETERSBURG — The syllabus was all but set in the spring. Assistant professor Adrian O'Connor envisioned History 3930 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg as a fast-paced survey of the last roughly 2,500 years seen through the specific prism of assassination. Who killed whom, or tried, and what could that tell us about the broader significance of that time and place in the world?
And then Osama bin Laden was killed.
The elimination in May of the leader of al-Qaida, arguably the biggest news story of the year, turned O'Connor's history course this semester into the best, most useful kind — one in which the past is used to better interpret the present.
Maybe, O'Connor hoped, his couple of dozen undergraduates could have the kind of challenging but important conversation the country as a whole mostly did not.
Was this form of justice just?
From late August to last week, the students studied the assassinations of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. Henry IV. Abraham Lincoln. Archduke Franz Ferdinand. John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. They studied the attempts on Adolf Hitler and Fidel Castro.
They tried to define assassination. It had to be targeted. It had to be politically significant. It had to have symbolic value. Motive mattered. Assassinations, it seemed, happened at the hinges of major historical moments.
Back in May, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a member of a team of Navy SEALs shot an unarmed bin Laden, first in the chest, then in the face.
Nobody in the United States in any official capacity called it an assassination. The few voices that made that argument got lost in the general exultation.
O'Connor's students read a book this fall called Political Murder in which author Franklin L. Ford described assassination as "a highly unreliable expedient" and pointed out that it "has tended to ignore man's hard-won regard for due process."
They read a question-and-answer debate in the Guardian in London from the week bin Laden was killed.
"You don't just shoot an unarmed person," a prominent philosopher said. "That's what terrorists do, and you don't want to emulate them."
"No," a counterinsurgency expert said. "It's achieved its aims so it was a successful mission."
They read an opinion piece from November in the Los Angeles Times in which investigative journalist Andrew Cockburn called the bin Laden killing a "taxpayer-funded assassination."
They noted the U.S. executive orders that ban state-sanctioned assassinations of foreign leaders. An assassination, with rare exceptions, according to the initial order in 1975, "violates moral precepts fundamental to our way of life."
They were by last week ready to discuss bin Laden.
O'Connor, 30, an assistant professor who got his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in modern European history and wears a daily uniform of blue jeans and short-sleeve button-downs, stood at the front of Room 228 in Davis Hall and set some ground rules.
"It's very important that we are able to debate," he told the students. "Not just for the health of this class, but for the body politic in general."
And so he asked: Was the killing of Osama bin Laden an assassination?
Most students said yes.
"Anyone want to contest the idea that it was an assassination?" O'Connor said.
"They were sent in to take him dead or alive," said Kevin Pace, 26 — technically a military mission, he explained, not an effort to assassinate.
"But they were going to kill this guy," said Brooke Bennett, 28. "There was no way they were going to put him on trial."
"To me," said Hugh Tulloch, 72, auditing the class, "this was an act of legitimate war."
"Yes? No?" O'Connor said. "On what terms?"
"Revenge," Bennett said.
"There's a difference between what's been said on paper and what common sense is telling us is reality," said Alaura Marriott, 20. "We all know bringing Osama bin Laden back alive was not an option. Common sense? This was an assassination."
O'Connor then asked: "What did Osama bin Laden represent?"
The students agreed: He was the face of terrorism.
But Timothy McVeigh was a terrorist, O'Connor pointed out, and so was Ted Kaczynski. They got trials.
What if he had been captured and put on trial?
"He would have recruited," Tulloch said.
He also, O'Connor said, would have had a forum for his ideology. For many people, particularly in the Muslim world, he said, bin Laden represented not terrorism but a response to American imperialism. O'Connor told his students they didn't have to agree with that. But it is, he said, worth some consideration.
"I don't care what you think when you get out of my classes," he told the students. "It's that you think well."
Class was dismissed.
Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.