10 executions that defined the 1980s

The Me decade marks the end of the “short century” and the transition out of the postwar period or the Cold War into … well, into whatever it is that’s come since.

While Communism and apartheid went out with hair bands, it was Back to the Future with the rise of terrorism, nationalism, and religious extremists. And if the warmest memories of the decade are of divided peoples breaching the walls that separated them, our world today is shaped just as surely by the violent ends meted out to many others.

10. Many Tiananmen Square protestors

China’s abortive liberal moment in 1989 was notoriously crushed by tanks. Although the fate of the famous anonymous man who wasn’t crushed is not known, executions for some “rioters” began within weeks of the June 4 crackdown.

9. Ted Bundy

The creepy-charismatic sex slayer whose diabolical crime spree from Seattle, Wash., to Gainesville, Fla., made his name synonymous with human brutality, Bundy left his still-unknown body count in the Seventies but his front-page persona while he scrambled to avoid Old Sparky was quintessential Eighties: oleaginous salesmanship, celebrity narcissism, cannibalistic hyperconsumption, and lethal sexuality. He even made time in his very last hours to horn in on the era’s trendy anti-porn racket.

Rivaled by few before or since for the volume, ferocity, and notoriety of his crimes, Bundy arguably remains the name in serial killing — as attested by the 5,000-plus comment thread he’s generated on this site and the new true-crime titles he continues to underwrite.

8. Satwat Singh and Kehar Singh

Shaheedi to their own minds and not a few of their admirers, these unapologetic assassins of India Prime Minister Indira Gandhi retaliated for one notorious anti-Sikh rampage … and triggered a second.

7. Benjamin Moloise

“I am proud to give my life / My one solitary life” wrote the poet, condemned as a terrorist (and not the only one) to worldwide outrage by South Africa’s increasingly desperate white government during the mid-1980s crisis that eventually collapsed apartheid.

6. Khalid Islambouli

The militant Islamic officer turned the page on an epoch of Middle East history by assassinating Nasserite Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after the latter made peace with Israel at Camp David.

5. Mehdi Hashemi

This Iranian revolutionary exposed the shocking Iran-contra scandal to a Lebanese magazine, and shook clandestine national security apparatuses all around the globe.

Ultimately, those who had dirtied their hands in this nefarious scheme, from the Nicaraguan bush to the White House to Hezbollah to Tel Aviv to Tehran, walked away with punishments ranging from a slap on the wrist to their name on an airport … but the whistleblower himself was tortured into a televised self-denunciation and his liberal political faction destroyed in Iran.

4. Maqbool Bhat

Patron martyr of the armed conflict for Kashmiri independence that’s been running for decades since his 1984 hanging. The return of Maqbool Bhat’s remains by the India government is still a going demand of Kashmiri separatists.

3. Kim Jaegyu

Had you composed the “10.26 incident” as fiction, no reader would have believed that the head of South Korea’s intelligence agency would have personally shot the country’s dictatorial president at a debaucherous wingding for (in Kim’s words) “democracy of this country.” Even more bizarrely, it kind of worked.

Our top two executions eerily bookend the decade with trends whose symbolic beginning and end were among that era’s defining events.

2. Militants who seized the Grand Mosque

On January 9, 1980, the Saudi Arabia had over 60 Islamic militants beheaded in several cities around the kingdom.

These men had shockingly seized the sacred Grand Mosque the previous year … and the political price for the Saudi state for profaning that holy place with soldiers to arrest them was an arrangement that immensely strengthened the hand of Wahhabi clerics and directly inspired a young Osama bin Laden.

1. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu

1989’s stunning collapse of Communist authority across Eastern Europe culminated with the fall of venerable Romanian strongman Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena. Their drumhead Christmas Day, 1989 trial (and resultant bloodied corpses) were captured on video for the ages, and symbolically tied up the decade with just days to spare.

Honorable Mentions

A few other executions to remember the Eighties by…

On this day..

5 thoughts on “10 executions that defined the 1980s

  1. I was an aid worker in a Romanian orphanage in Criova Romania as part of the 1990 BBC Blue Peter Appeal. Ceausescu made a law that each Romanian family must have five children. This was to increase the countries work force. Many people could not afford these children and they were sent to dangerously understaffed orphanages. Ratio 1/50. The children were well fed but because of the lack of staff they were left in their cots for safety. One needle would be shared between every child in the orphanage for vaccinations. By the time our team arrived Hep B, HIV and AIDs were extremely common. The needle sharing stopped once we arrived with more supplies. Older children had been tied to their cots for safety. We worked alongside the Untrained staff teaching by example in terrible conditions. The TV footage of the orphanages was horrible but the reality was far worse. The smell was overpowering too. The systematic institutional abuse of children is still too distressing for me to write about but our work had many positive outcomes. We watched a repeat of the execution with my Romanian colleagues on Romanian state TV. Many of the Romanian staff were very upset by the footage. The problem with any political system is that we humans are corruptible. I met some of the kindest people in Romania and I often wonder what happened to the children we cared for.

  2. after the fall of the communism only shit and crime spread up on the east, anarchy and greed…thanks, western intelligence agencies..

  3. I remember spending all of Christmas Day, 1989 – my eldest’s third Christmas – trying to ring a help line to donate money to Romanian orphanages as the news was coming through about how the children had not been fed but given AIDS infected blood to make them seem more healthy.

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