Murder isn’t “execution”

I wish newspaper reporters would stop confusing murders with executions.

Thinking too much about the fact that the collection of fools and scoundrels now running my country has turned Iraq over to warlords and death squads, and may well leave it in the grip of civil war, will only spoil your digestion and mine, dear reader, without doing any actual good.

So let us concentrate instead on a much smaller, but curable, evil: the use in newspapers of “execution” as a synonym for “murder.”

November 29, 2005

Sunnis Accuse Iraqi Military of Kidnappings and Slayings


As the American military pushes the largely Shiite Iraqi security services into a larger role in combating the insurgency, evidence has begun to mount suggesting that the Iraqi forces are carrying out executions in predominantly Sunni neighborhoods.

Hundreds of accounts of killings and abductions have emerged in recent weeks, most of them brought forward by Sunni civilians, who claim that their relatives have been taken away by Iraqi men in uniform without warrant or explanation.

Some Sunni men have been found dead in ditches and fields, with bullet holes in their temples, acid burns on their skin, and holes in their bodies apparently made by electric drills. Many have simply vanished.

Them ain’t “executions.” Them’s “murders.”

As far as I can tell, the origin of this horrible locution is in reporting on the somewhat ritualized killings that used to characterize Mafia activity, and which in some cases followed some sort of formal determination within the gang that a disloyal or troublesome member, associate, or rival “deserved” to be killed. Newspapers sometimes referred to these as “execution-style slayings,” which was a reasonable thing to say: they did resemble actual executions, more or less as a Black Mass resembles a real Mass. But then that got shortened from “execution-style slayings” to “executions,” and “execution” came to be applied to any killing carried out by an organized group. That’s a mistake in language and morals.

Properly, an “execution” is what follows the lawful sentence of a court. No sentence, no execution.

(Technically, it is the sentence, not the criminal, which is “executed”: that is, carried out. “Executioner” and “executive” come from the same root; policies, as well as sentences, need to be executed. But the use of “execution” to mean specifically “capital punishment” is very old; Machiavelli puns on it.)

It’s not even as if the reporters and editors are trying to make a subtle anti-capital-punishment point by conflating the actions of gangsters and terrorists with the actions of the agents of justice. This is just plain sloppy writing. And I thank them for engaging in it and thus letting me displace my rage about the facts into a mere quibble about words.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: