In time, assassin came generally to mean one who killed an unsuspecting victim without warning, but the original sense of political purpose was never quite lost, and has become increasingly strong. To assassinate is to kill for a political reason—to secure or resist authority, to eliminate a rival for power, to prevent or avenge a political defeat, or to express a political grievance.
Political motivation distinguishes assassination from other deadly interpersonal violence. Unfortunately for analytic rigor, motivation is extremely difficult to establish. Indeed, after a useful discussion of the problem, Havens, Leiden, and Schmitt remarked at the end of their research that "perhaps attempts to determine motives are irrelevant, for once the act has been committed the public manufactures its own motive in harmony with its own political predilections" (p. 150). Political motives, like others, are often hidden or unclear, and cannot merely be inferred from the political significance or prominence of a target (Kirkham, Levy, and Crotty). Heads of state may be the victims of nonpolitical violence; ordinary citizens such as tourists may die as political surrogates or pawns. Nonetheless, it has been generally assumed that only attacks on important officials and other influential persons are politically inspired, and that common folk are too insignificant to draw the assassin's fire. Both assumptions are questionable.
The meaning of the term political blurs as power concerns and struggles permeate society and as the interdependence and interpenetration of different loci and forms of authority increase. Any area of social life, from religion and education to industry and entertainment, can be politicized, serving as a base, vehicle, or object of power struggles. Whoever emerges as a leading figure may have, or be seen as having, political significance as actor or symbol, in the sense once associated almost exclusively with the leaders of governments and parties. Charismatic figures are especially likely to attract the attention of an established or aspiring power-wielder who sees the potential value and danger of anyone who sways others.
Contemporary justifications of assassination and terrorism began in nineteenth-century Russian anarchism and have led in their most extreme formulations to the conclusion that death is appropriate for all who live as "part of the problem"—that is, who try to carry on a normal life instead of joining in the war to destroy the existing world system, which is increasingly seen as culturally, economically, and militarily dominated by the United States. In such terms, every killing is an assassination, serving the political aim of demonstrating that all are guilty until injustice (as defined by the motivating ideology) is eliminated from the world.
One major consequence is that the meaning of assassination shifts not only to include common as well as prominent people, but also to include the killing of many as well as of one or a few. Assassination finally becomes synonymous with terrorism—which may be understood as random violence whose specific victims are selected mostly by chance instead of design, irrespective of the varying innocence and political power of individuals.
The logic of terrorist theory thus leads to a concept of assassination in which the element of specification is ultimately dissolved. Of course, even terrorists find it necessary to make distinctions and set priorities. Dangerous adversaries must be distinguished from innocent bystanders. Opportunities must be weighed with regard to potential risks and benefits. Resources have to be matched to opportunities. Targets have to be selected with due regard for their tactical importance. All this suggests that assassination is characterized by selection rather than by specification. The point is that victims are selected because of the anticipated impact of the timing, place, or manner of their death. Their attributes as individuals may or may not be relevant concerns and, in any case, will be secondary ones. Their individuality is irrelevant as such, although particular attributes (e.g., their perceived nationality or race) may be assessed as enhancing or reducing their significance as potential victims. Because significance is not only or necessarily a function of power or prominence, children and other noncombatants may be targeted precisely because their destruction is expected to weaken or deter support for the opposition. Symbols, positions, and relationships—not people—are the real targets of assassination.
Although agreeing that assassination is politically motivated killing, Ben-Yehuda emphasizes the need to distinguish between assassination and terrorism. His view is that assassination is defined by the targeting of specific individuals, while terrorism is (as suggested above) indiscriminate killing aimed at a general target—a collectivity or population. As he recognizes, and as illustrated by several of the cases he analyzes, it is difficult to maintain the distinction. Attempted or successful assassinations of particular actors may harm others in addition to or instead of the intended targets. Nontargeted others may be deliberately harmed because they are trying to protect or assist the target, or because they are potential witnesses. Companions or bystanders may be mistakenly or inadvertently harmed. And mistakes may occur, as when an agent dispatched by the Israeli Mossad misidentified and killed an innocent Arab in Lillehamer, Norway. Finally, the number of targets or victims of assassination may vary from one to many—which suggests that there may be a point at which the number becomes so great that the line between specific and general targeting is impossible to draw. In sum, the distinction between assassination and terrorism is at best tactical or analytical, not one dictated by empirical observations.
Thus, the most realistic definition of assassination is that it is politically motivated killing in which victims are selected because of the expected political impact of their dying. The victims of assassination are generally assumed to be few and to be individually targeted. When there are many victims, who appear to have been randomly selected by the circumstances of their being in "the wrong place at the wrong time," the event is more likely to be defined as terrorism than as assassination.