What Defines an Assassination?

(Last Updated On: January 13, 2020)

What Defines an Assassination?

With all the political shenanigans going on as of late, the term “assassination” has been thrown around a lot. You might have seen arguments about whether or not the US airstrike that killed Qasem Soleimani was an assassination or not. That, or you’ve been playing too much Assassin’s Creed. Either way, you may be wondering what technically defines an assassination? So what is an assassination, exactly? Why don’t we just call it murder?

Murder Defined

We’ll start with a definition of murder first. In addition to being the name for a flock of crows, murder is defined as “the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice and forethought.” Let’s talk about what that means.

If you’ve seen enough legal sitcoms on TV, you probably know that murder is a little more than just killing someone. For example, there is the charge of manslaughter. In cases of manslaughter, you still killed someone. You might have even wanted to kill someone. But it’s not necessarily murder. Some “crimes of passion” might fall under this. But think more like “you were really drunk one time and ran someone over.”

What makes first-degree murder so special is the plan. Legally, “premeditation.” So murder is generally illegally killing someone, and having made a plan to do so. 

What Defines an Assassination?

If you want to get super semantic with us, you could probably go ahead and levy the argument that, yeah, technically an assassination would probably include murder. Which brings us to this kind of “all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares” type deal. 

Who Can Be Assassinated?

So first and foremost, not everyone can be assassinated. If you’re reading this post, it’s more likely than not that you can’t be assassinated by the textbook definition. If you were killed it’d probably just be murder–or some other type of homicide. Certainly, nobody involved in the writing of this post could be textbook assassinated, anyway. 

So, who do you have to be to get assassinated?

Most dictionaries more or less define an assassination as the act of murdering a prominent person. Here’s how the dictionary defines “prominent”. While we couldn’t find a legal definition of what a “prominent person” is, we can safely assume the term encompasses a public figure. And this, it turns out, does have a legal definition.

A public figure is defined as someone who is of great public interest or familiarity. Which means they’re any person who is in the public eye; ergo, someone a lot of people know of. There’s the direct call out of government officials/politicians, celebrities, and business leaders (read: CEOs). The definition also specifies movie stars and sports heroes. Which honestly, should have been rolled into “celebrity,” but sure.

Fun fact not associated with assassinations; it’s a lot harder for public figures to claim defamation. There’s a stipulation that “a public figure cannot be the basis of a lawsuit for defamation.” They can only be the basis of a suit like that if there is proof that the alleged statements were made with malice. Take that however you will.

The Limited Purpose Public Figure

There is also something called a “limited purposed public figure.” It’s a bit silly, but these are people in the public eye for very niche reasons. Think people like YouTube stars or “social media influencers”.

The term also applies to those who are in the public eye for reasons they did not choose. An example would be Monica Lewinsky when the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke. 

Assassination and Motives

So we’ve been talking a lot about murder and motives, and there’s a reason for that. You don’t get assassinated all willy-nilly (well, that depends on who you ask, we guess). Anyway, an assassination is typically prompted, normally by some sort of political motive, like removing a rival. It could also be religious; perhaps there is a priest preaching a gospel you really don’t like. Or maybe it’s financial, like provoking a war so you can get access to resources.

Sometimes assassinations are carried out so the assassin gains notoriety. The point is, there’s almost always a reason for the assassination to occur beyond “I felt like it.”

Assassination and Targeted Killing

There is also the American definition of a “targeted killing.” Which is the killing of any non-combatant (read: basically civilian). 

Because an assassination is, like we mentioned earlier, largely just murder with more syllables, the US cannot legally assassinate someone. Other countries with similar laws can’t either. Which is why targeted killings are often framed as “preemptive self-defense.” Which is basically just “assassination but we’re calling it something else.”

A Quick History Lesson

The term “assassin” is normally credited to the Arabic language, as an English phonetic for حشّاشين, ħashshāshīyīn.

Anyway, there was once an assassin order under the Nizari teachings. This order would exist only until around the late 1200s. They were a group that separated from Shia Muslims. 

In English, the use of “assassinate” as a verb wouldn’t crop up until the 1600s, with Matthew Sutcliffe’s A Briefe Replie to a Certaine Odious and Slanderous Libel, Lately Published by a Seditious Jesuite. It would appear again with Shakespeare’s MacBeth

Quiz yourself: Failed Assassination Attempts

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.