It’s one of the most memorable scenes in Apocalypse Now. Martin Sheen’s Green Beret captain is being briefed on his mission to find Col. Walter Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. “He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct,” a general tells the captain. A civilian spook then gives him a coded order: “Terminate with extreme prejudice.”
The line was no Hollywood creation but a euphemism that came to light in 1969, after a group of real Army Green Berets murdered a suspected Vietnamese double agent. The phrase, some of the soldiers said, was the CIA’s suggestion to them on dealing with the supposed turncoat.
Today, the preferred line for assassination is “targeted killing,” as in Greg Miller’s recent Washington Post exposé revealing that CIA and special operations forces have launched “a secret campaign to hunt terrorism suspects in Syria as part of a targeted killing program.”
How — or if — killing a human with a remote-controlled flying robot differs from, say, a Green Beret killing a rogue colonel, has been discussed and debated for years now. “If it’s premeditated assassination, why call it a ‘targeted killing?’” wrote Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’ public editor, in 2013, channeling some of the complaints she received from readers.