The downing of KAL 007, flying from Anchorage to Seoul, was mass murder in the second degree. Seeing an aircraft intrude into Russian air space, Soviet officers brutally ordered it shot down.
The downing of the Malaysian airliner that took the lives of 298 men, women and children was not deliberate terrorism. No one wanted to massacre those women and children.
It was a horrendous military blunder, like the U.S. shoot-down of the Iranian Airbus by the Vincennes in 1988.
That U.S. cruiser thought it was coming under attack. And Ukraine's separatists thought they were firing at an army plane.
The distinctions are as important as those between first- and second-degree murder, and manslaughter.
The respective reactions confirm this. Gadhafi concealed his role in the Scotland slaughter. Moscow was defiant in the KAL case. America was apologetic over the Iranian airliner.
Today, Vladimir Putin, with an indictment being drawn up against him, is blaming Ukraine for the war out of which the tragedy came.
But though Putin did not order the plane shot down, the horror of it all has put him in a box. And the course he pursues could determine the future of U.S.-Russian relations for his tenure.
For the rebels in Ukraine are seen as Putin's proxies. They have been armed and advised by Russia. And it was a Russian SA-11 that brought the airliner down.
While the separatists say they got the surface-to-air missiles from an army depot, there is evidence the missile was provided by Russia, and Russians may have advised or assisted in the fatal launch.
This crisis has caused President Obama to insist that Putin cut off the rebels. And if he does not rein them in, and abandon their cause, Putin is likely to face new U.S.-EU sanctions that could cripple his economy and push his country further out into the cold.
And the ostracism of Putin and the sinking of Russia's economy is what some in the West have long had in mind.
The Day of the Hawk is at hand.
John McCain and John Bolton are calling for punitive sanctions, declaring Russia an adversary, putting defensive missiles and U.S. troops in Eastern Europe, and arming Kiev.
"That's just for openers," says McCain, who wants "the harshest possible sanctions on Vladimir Putin and Russia."