- - Thursday, September 18, 2014

News media conflation of murder with execution has become deadly — to journalistic standards of accuracy. Mark Twain famously said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. In the countless cases of terrorists who commit murder, it’s that stark and more serious.

Coverage of the bloody eruption of the Islamic State into the headlines over the past year epitomizes a disturbing trend long in the making: News outlets use the word “execution” to describe what obviously are murders. In the process, they erase in language, thought, law and morality a conceptual pillar of civilization.

Among innumerable examples:

The Times of Israel reported that “[a] jihadist group operating in the Sinai Peninsula has taken responsibility for executing five more people for collaborating with Israel, after it announced Thursday that it had beheaded four people on the same charges” (“Sinai jihadists claim 5 more beheadings,” Sept. 2).

The Chicago Tribune stated that “Hamas-led gunmen in Gaza executed 18 Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel on Friday, a day after Israeli forces killed three Hamas commanders, the highest-ranking militants to die in the six-week war.” (“Gunmen execute 18 alleged collaborators in Gaza; Israel launches airstrikes,” Aug. 22).

In a commentary in The Washington Post, two men who should know better, Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, a former commandant of the Army War College, and Douglas Ollivant, a fellow at the New American Foundation’s Future of War project, wrote “they [Islamist fighters] employ mortars and rockets in deadly barrages. To be sure, parts of the old terrorist playbook remain: They butcher and execute prisoners to make unambiguously clear the terrible consequences of resistance.” (“Today’s Islamist fighters aren’t like the disorganized enemy of the old,” Aug. 3).

The Los Angeles Times, in a news report, said President Obama “has reconsidered his position as Islamic State forces have grown stronger and issued threats against Americans, most recently in a video this week showing the killing of American journalist James Foley at the hands of a masked executioner who spoke with a British accent” (“U.S. considers attacking Islamic State militants in Syria,” Aug. 22).

These and countless other examples are wrong. “Execute” means, as any authoritative dictionary notes, “to put to death especially in compliance with a legal sentence” (Merriam-Webster). State and federal laws across the United States make clear that murder is one thing, executions another, and other killings — manslaughter, self-defense, accidental — quite something else.

A person found guilty beyond reasonable doubt of murder and sentenced to death by a legitimate government, after a trial conducted according to due process and who has exhausted all appeals, stands in contrast to the victim of an individual criminal, criminal organization, terrorist movement or police state. The founding ethical code of Western civilization, the Ten Commandments, makes the distinction clear. In the Sixth Commandment, the sense of the original Hebrew is not “thou shall not kill,” since killing in self-defense is permissible. It is “thou shall not murder.”

Regardless of its name, the Islamic State possesses no more legitimacy to execute individuals than do drug cartels, which also are frequently and erroneously reported to have “executed” victims.

Does common editorial opposition to the death penalty contribute, consciously or not, to the accurate use of “execute” when reporting on state killings of convicted murderers but its widespread misuse in other contexts? In any case, James Foley, Steven Sotloff, captured Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese soldiers and Iraqi and Syrian civilians beheaded or shot by the Islamic State; dissidents and rival Fatah members killed by Hamas as “collaborators” with Israel; Nigerian Christians slaughtered by Boko Haram and thousands of other similar victims of Islamic extremists were not executed. They were murdered.

Erroneous reporting of their deaths is more than just a mistaken word choice. It’s a confusing, potentially demoralizing conflation of very different acts.

Eric Rozenman is Washington director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, where Ziv Kaufman is a media assistant.

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