The Semantics of Obama's 'Targeted Killing'--Er, 'Assassination' Program

An Afghan boy wounded in a US drone strike in Kunar province last year that left 10 civilians, including five children, dead. (Photograph: Namatullah Karyab/AFP/Getty Images)

The Semantics of Obama's 'Targeted Killing'--Er, 'Assassination' Program

'We’re trying to use the accurate term rather than the euphemistic term that the government wants us to use.'

In an interview with journalist Glenn Greenwald and subsequent discussions with prominent news outlets, the Washington Post's Erik Wemple explores why Monday's headline by Greenwald and colleague Jeremy Scahill felt comfortable using the term "assassination" as they described the manner in which the U.S. government targets and executes individuals it has accused of terrorists activity overseas.

The term the White House and Department of Justice have used to describe the controversial activity is "targeting killing," and most major media outlets--including the Associated Press, New York Times, and the Washington Post itself--have taken the government's lead on that choice of phrase.

Greenwald, however, disagrees and was adamant that the term "assassinate" is the both accurate and important.

"What we're trying to do is use the accurate term rather than the euphemistic term that the government wants us to use," Greenwald told Wemple, adding that "most media outlets wouldn't do it."

[Full disclosure, this writer used the word 'murder' on Monday, to describe the intentional killing by a government entity of an individual who has neither been accused in a court of law or presented with evidence attempting to show guilt.]

For Greenwald and Scahill, however, there was little debate that in the context of the drone program run by the Pentagon and CIA, with assistance from the NSA, that the appropriate word was 'assassination.'

The spokesman at AP who spoke with Wemple told him no one at the news agency recalls "ever using the term 'assassination' as shorthand for the targeted killing program."

And Eileen Murphy of the New York Times said: "We usually apply [the word 'assassinate'] to prominent people. And it is most often used in a political context. The president of a country is assassinated. Like most of our style guidelines, we apply on a case-by-case basis. Also ... For these drone strikes on terrorists, most of our articles use 'targeted killings.' Most of these people are not prominently known or in political office."

And the Post more or less agreed, with national editor Cameron Barr saying: "Many, perhaps most, of the targets of drone strikes are not prominent."

All of this, according to Wemple, was 'unimpressive' to Greenwald. Which is not surprising given the amount of reporting both he and his colleague Scahill have done over the years covering the many innocent "non-targeted" individuals killed when the U.S. military or CIA "targets" an individual or group for killing.

As he noted, many of the drone attacks conducted as part of the assassination program take place off the so-called battlefield" as a victim is "sleeping on his couch next to his kids," sitting in cafe, or driving in a car along a populated road.

And the idea of prominence is also troubling, said Greenwald. "When Iranian nuclear scientists were systematically murdered, that was widely referred to as 'assassinations' even though they're not particularly prominent or politically important. I'd say anyone who is murdered deliberately away from a battlefield for political purposes is being assassinated."

For those innocent victims--many of them children (also called "collateral damage") in errant drone strikes--it is also true: Many, perhaps most, of them were "not prominent."


Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.