Home / General / It’s Called “Summary Execution.”

It’s Called “Summary Execution.”


Clark Hoyt writes about “semantic minefields” journalists walk through in reporting “objectively” on “contested concepts”:

Stuart Gardiner of San Francisco was incensed last month after The Times reported that the administration had authorized the “targeted killing” of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who it believed was plotting attacks on the United States. Gardiner said the paper had resorted to “a euphemism for assassination,” reducing the decision to kill a person without due process to a term implying “something almost sanitary about the act, bureaucratic and bloodless.”

Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief, said he did not regard “targeted killing” as a euphemism like those routinely used by governments “to obfuscate and conceal the true meaning.” You might wonder about those “proximity talks” sponsored by the United States in the Middle East, but there is no doubt what targeted killing means. I don’t think it is euphemistic, either, though it does, as Gardiner argues, sound bureaucratic. Under the circumstances, I could not think of a better term.

Well, I can think of a better term than either of these: “summary execution.” After all, Anwar al-Awlaki is a US citizen allegedly engaged in inciting crimes against his fellow citizens and his government. Like any other US citizen, he is entitled to due process and a trial before the government could even consider whether he deserves the death penalty. When governments kill individuals outside such a judicial process, the terms for this are “summary execution” or “extrajudicial execution.” This is contrary to international human rights standards; international law makes no exception for states to derogate from such rules due to public emergency or internal unrest. When the US government targets its own citizens outside a judicial process it is also a violation of the US Constitution.

I think civil liberties advocates and the press have ceded too much to the US government by accepting the term “targeted killings” to describe the type of summary justice the administration now asserts the right to carry out. But as Hoyt observes, “assassination” isn’t the right term either, if only because it is so imprecisely defined. Instead, let’s ask ourselves whether or not we can accept that our government has, in any context, the right to summarily execute its citizens outside of a judicial process.

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