Stop calling it "assassination": Sean Hannity, Rudy Giuliani and the media's twisted double standard

The very different way in which we discuss the deaths of officers and civilians reflects real political motivations

Published January 5, 2015 1:30PM (EST)

  (Fox News)
(Fox News)

Professional journalists know, or should know, that certain words are not to be used outside their proper contexts. For instance, "murder." A person accused of murder did not "murder" and is not a "murderer" in crime reporting until that person is convicted of the charge in a court of law. Until then, the crime is called a "killing" or "slaying" or "shooting death." Americans are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond doubt, and the rules governing crime reporting reflect that value.

"Assassination" warrants special treatment, too. The term is popularly understood to be synonymous with "murder" but there are important differences, just as there are important differences, legal and moral, among "homicide," "murder" and "manslaughter." According to the AP Stylebook, the bible of such matters among professional journalists, a "homicide" is a legal term for a killing; a "murder" is malicious, premeditated homicide; and a "manslaughter" is homicide without malice or premeditation.

An assassination is malicious and premeditated, but it is much more. It "involves the murder of a politically important or prominent individual by surprise attack," according to the AP Stylebook. Moreover, an "assassin" is "a politically motivated killer" not a "killer" who "kills with a motive of any kind" or a "murderer" who is convicted of the crime. Taken together, these rules exclude more than they include. John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. John Lennon and Tupac Shakur were not. Lee Harvey Oswald was an assassin. His killer, Jack Ruby, was not.

Yet since Dec. 20, we have seen "assassination" used to characterize the killing of two New York City police officers. New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton that evening said: "They were, quite simply, assassinated." Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, on "Fox and Friends," said: "What happened yesterday was an assassination." News media in New York and elsewhere blindly followed suit. Sean Hannity, CBS News, the New York Daily News, USA Today and Newsday all used "assassination" indiscriminately. The San Antonio Express-News ran an editorial with this astounding headline: "No Other Word for It—Assassination."

Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were by all accounts exemplary police officers—Ramos was a father of two; Liu had just been married—and they were indeed killed in a horrific surprise attack. After shooting his girlfriend, Ismaaiyl Brinsley wrote online that he'd put "wings on pigs." He then ambushed Ramos and Liu before turning the gun on himself.

But while Ramos and Liu served with honor, distinction and sacrifice, no one can say they were "politically important or prominent individual[s]," like a president or leader of a political movement. Were they murdered in cold blood? Were they targeted because of their uniforms, killed execution-style? Yes. Were they assassinated? No.

Public figures like William Bratton and Rudy Giuliani aren't bound, of course, by the same codes of conduct that professional journalists are (or are supposed to be). They don't choose between "killer" and "assassin" in order to find proper ways of representing reality that are independent of their interests. They choose between them in order to shape reality, as well as the media's representation of reality and the public's understanding of reality. And their attempt to shape reality stems directly from their interests.

In this case, those interests are perceived to be under attack by a nationwide protest movement against routine acts of police brutality experienced by African-Americans and other Americans of color. This is a movement that's gained considerable traction in the months since the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer. So it's in Bratton's and Giuliani's interest to mount a counterattack. In choosing "assassination," instead of "killing" or "murder," they aren't merely searching for the right words. They are making a decision that's entirely political.

Only by understanding the politics behind "assassination" can we understand what's going on. Ramos and Liu were not "politically important" before death. They have become clearly "politically important" afterward. Under normal circumstances, Brinsley would be just another suicidal killer and his rampage would be just another act of gun violence. Now he's "a politically motivated killer." With one word, Giuliani & Co. have drawn the battle lines and want everyone to choose sides. They have aligned a legitimate movement seeking to achieve the full measure of justice for all with an assassin.

More important, they have advanced the view that anything that representatives of the government perceive to be a threat must be suppressed by the government even if that "threat" is an honest effort to petition the government for a redress of grievances. As the head of one of New York's police unions said, "[The movement] must not go on. It cannot be tolerated." In this view, no one can protest anything if the police feel threatened.

That, of course, is to be expected of an inherently conservative organization like the New York Police Department. It is monumentally sensitive to threats, perceived and real. And it is not just intolerant of critics. It seeks to destroy them. "We have, for the first time in a number of years, become a 'wartime' police department," said a statement by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, one of the police unions. "We will act accordingly."

What's interesting, perhaps, is that all this can be turned around. If a protest movement against the institutionalization of police violence is the precondition for claiming that Ramos and Liu were assassinated, then it follows that the institutionalization of police violence is a precondition for claiming that Michael Brown was assassinated. The difference is one killing was authorized by the government and the other was not.

Protest or racism. Each is a manifestation of politics.

The question is which politics will win.

By John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Assassination New York Police Rafael Ramos Rudy Giuliani Wenjian Liu William Bratton