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Is there a word or phrase that describes an event where someone or a group of people are killed or executed, usually publicly, as a means of deterrence?

A close candidate is a "scare tactic."

Thank you.

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Your question isn't very clear... – asymptotically Jul 28 '12 at 12:04
up vote 6 down vote accepted

It is not a single word, but when a person is or group of people are killed to show what happens to people who act thus, it can be said that they were "made an example of."

make an example of somebody

to punish someone for doing something so that other people will not do the same thing. They want to make an example of him by keeping him in prison under very difficult conditions.

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There is the phrase pour encourager les autres, literally "to encourage the others". Although it's French, it's been borrowed.

Wikipedia has a quote from Voltaire about Admiral Byng. Byng was a British naval commander who lost the island of Minorca to the French in 1756. He was court-martialled and executed.

Byng's execution is referred to in Voltaire's novel Candide with the line Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres – "In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others."

A similar tactic was employed by decimation of legions in Ancient Rome (every tenth soldier was extracted from a parade and executed); and to a certain extent by Nazi reprisal executions during the Second World War.

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Intimidation, meaning "The act of making timid or fearful or of deterring by threats", somewhat applies; only somewhat because threats often are not as extreme as killings. Requital ("Compensation for loss or damage; amends. Retaliation or reprisal; vengeance") and related words (revenge, retribution, reprisal, retaliation) may not apply in that the question's "means of deterrence" phrase somewhat implies a preemptive strike rather than requital.

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The term decimate was originally used to describe a practice of taking one out of ten of a defeated group and killing them. This is derived from the word decimus meaning tenth.

The practice served to show the power of the victor and to deter further resistance by the conquered.

It is often used now (I think not very well) to indicate a drastic reduction without regard to the word's root in the term for tenth.

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Your statement is correct, but I don't think it answers the OP's question about making an example about someone. – Lynn Jul 28 '12 at 21:54
No the statements are incorrect. The Romans decimated their own forces, not opposing armies as implied here. And decimate nowadays does have regard to the etymology: these days it's a tenth which is left (having removed the other nine tenths). And it doesn't answer the question, I'm afraid: decimate does not mean to make an example, or intimidate others into compliance. – Andrew Leach Jul 28 '12 at 22:46
@Andrew Leach - my recollection from first year Latin of 50+ years ago is extremely weak, and I think AL is right as to who was killed. However, I think the purpose, is exactly as OP asked - executing one tenth of the soldiers who rebelled or failed to fight well, publicly as a means of deterrence. – bib Jul 29 '12 at 0:27

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