May 16, 2011

When Killing Isn't Murder

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

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.

clip_image002The 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, “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?


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It's a great case to study.

When I heard the news of the death of Osama, many of my friends were appalled that I wasn't too happy. Death, no matter what to me , is wrong.

The President's job is to protect America. If someone was breaking into my house wanting to kill my family then I would have to protect them. The president has to protect us. This was an evil man determined to kill Americans. No social change was going to change him or his beliefs.

Bin Laden, by his many terrorist actions, deserves to be killed for killing a good number of hard working and innocent people working for America and the world in the World Trade Center twin towers. No body should feel sorry for him. He is a muderer, a killer, a thief, a devil-style minded attitude person, who God will never forgive.

His killing must not be seen as an "Assasination", a term which is used only for the killing of VIPs. He was killed in a millitary-style strategy, which is perfect. I congratulate all the sea creatures who have taken part in eating up his dirty body, however, I hope they don't die from eating a dirty minded and evil body. I hate him.

It is up to every person to decide for themselves if killing in self-defense is morally right or wrong. I believe I would kill to protect my family but I have to admire the moral consistency of religious groups such as the Quakers who believe killing is wrong, period, and it's up to God to do the punishing and forgiving. ~ Arlie Jarels

I applaud you on your article.

There is no doubt in my mind that the person or persons responsible for Bin Laden's death received some sort of positive sanction for their work. To me, murder is a murder, whether it was state-sanctioned, or committed by a deviant. Most of the stories you hear or read about involving the killing of an individual or multiple people end with the murderer receiving a negative sanction, usually jail time, or a worse consequence depending on the intensity of the crime committed.

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