When Killing Isn't Murder
When is the intentional death of a person not considered murder? Does it have to do with the identity of those involved? Does it have to do with the number of people involved? Or something else?
When the death of Osama Bin Laden hit the news media, the thing that most got my attention was the range of reactions to this event. From the individuals involved in the situation to the reporters sharing the story and people across the country, reactions differed greatly.
The photo of the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State (among others) watching the action was particularly fascinating. President Obama had a serious expression, Vice President Biden looked impassive, and Secretary Clinton had her hand over her mouth and looked worried.
The American news media was primarily jubilant and extremely patriotic, flying the American flag and using all sorts of imagery from September 11, 2001 and earlier events. The range of reactions among individuals ranged from the jubilant celebrations echoed in the media to quiet reflection and a resistance to celebrating a death, even of someone so reviled.
When the President made his announcement, it struck me as odd to see a government leader announce that the military had shot and killed an individual. This is not news one hears every day!
All of this made me think of how a government can actually kill someone and justify it whereas if an individual shot someone in the same way, they might be guilty of a crime.
Does the government regularly kill people in legally sanctioned ways? The answer is an unqualified yes.
People convicted of certain crimes in particular states can get the death penalty and be put to death – this is a government killing an individual but is completely legal. Among many others, this country executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for spying and Ted Bundy for several murders. Texas is the state with the most legally sanctioned executions, with 464 of the total 1,234 of those executed in the U.S. in 2010.
Internationally, Saddam Hussein was executed after conviction by a special tribunal in Iraq (not by U.S. forces).
People in the military that are deployed into war zones are called upon to kill others; this is also an example of state-sanctioned killing. These are usually done in by groups against other groups unless it is a covert operation with one target, as the aforementioned event was.
We may not hear about these situations unless our people are killed or wounded or we know someone who returns from war to tell the stories. Details about combat that results in casualties are often not released or known until long after the event.
These killings are not considered murder. According to dictionary.com, “Murder” is “the killing of another human being under conditions specifically covered in law.” Executions, also known as Capital Punishment, are defined as “punishment by death for a crime.”
What’s the difference and why does it matter? Governments define what is lawful and unlawful. As major societal institutions, government and the legal system exist to regulate many things in society, including when the killing of people is legal or not subject to legal proceedings.
When a government kills many of its own people, people within its borders, or attempts to kill whole groups of people, it is considered genocide. The government that engages in genocide might consider it as legal, as did Turkey in the early 20th century, Germany did in the 1930s and 40s, and Somalia has in recent years. Other governments might not see it that way, though, and may respond with military action against the country that is engaging in genocide.
The point of this post is not to examine whether government sanctioned killings is right or wrong, but rather to point out that our perception of killing is rooted in social context.
What other aspects of the bin Laden situation or other government sanctioned killings can be explained by using a sociological perspective?