Bin Laden: Death by Verb

Osama bin Laden’s demise raises many moral, legal, political, and historical questions. As I’ve edited and posted a steady stream of commentary about this post-9/11 milestone, one persistent editorial question has touched on all these issues.

Specifically, which verbs are appropriate for conveying what U.S. Special Forces did to carry out their mission after they burst into the al-Qaeda leader’s Pakistani compound? Did they simply kill bin Laden? Murder him? Assassinate him? Execute him?

Most Americans consider Osama bin Laden a dangerous and evil man. With so many of us feeling that the world is better off without him, few are questioning the legality of the operation that ended his life. As a former New Yorker who lives in Arlington, VA, it’s easy for me to relate. I was already at work in a downtown DC newsroom on September 11, 2001 when those planes flew into the twin towers and the Pentagon, and several years earlier my daily commute required me to change trains underneath the World Trade Center. I still wince whenever I glance at the Manhattan skyline. Yet, as an editor committed both to accuracy and to speaking truth to power, I need to probe this issue carefully.

One of the dictionary definitions of assassination is “to murder (a usually prominent person) by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons.” The Saudi-born terrorist certainly was killed at home, and he was killed for reasons that could easily be described as “political.” However, Merriam-Webster defines “murder” as “the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought.” That’s more problematic because it raises another question: did the U.S. government commit a crime by killing bin Laden?

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