Today, the preferred line for assassination is “targeted killing,” as in Greg Miller’s recent Washington Post exposé revealing that CIA and special operations forces have launched “a secret campaign to hunt terrorism suspects in Syria as part of a targeted killing program.”
How — or if — killing a human with a remote-controlled flying robot differs from, say, a Green Beret killing a rogue colonel, has been discussed and debated for years now. “If it’s premeditated assassination, why call it a ‘targeted killing?’” wrote Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’ public editor, in 2013, channeling some of the complaints she received from readers.
Scott Shane, a Times national security reporter, had a ready answer: The Obama administration decreed it. He explained that since assassination is banned by executive order, using the term would indicate the administration is deliberately violating the ban. “This administration, like others, just doesn’t think the executive order applies,” he wrote to Sullivan. He crossed off the term “murder” for similar reasons. “This leaves ‘targeted killing,’ which I think is far from a euphemism,” Shane continued. “It denotes exactly what’s happening: American drone operators aim at people on the ground and fire missiles at them. I think it’s a pretty good term for what’s happening, if a bit clinical.”