Wednesday, August 25, 2010

“Homicide bomber”

Some of my fellow conservatives complain that use of the expression “suicide bomber” evinces a left-wing bias and that “homicide bomber” is a more appropriate expression. The idea is that since the primary intent of terrorists who strap bombs to themselves is to kill other people and not themselves, “suicide bomber” is highly misleading and serves only to whitewash the true evil of the acts in question, presumably so as not to offend Muslims.

I think this is extremely silly. Indeed, I have always found the conservative use of “homicide bomber” almost as annoying as I find the liberal use of “she” or “her” to refer to someone of unknown sex. The claim, in both cases, is that a revision of language is needed in order to counter an ideological bias. And in both cases, there is no bias at all, only paranoia on the part of those who think they see it. For that reason, I must disagree with my friend Bill Vallicella, who has been defending the use of “homicide bomber” in place of “suicide bomber” in a couple of recent posts (here and here). (Though I don’t think Bill is being paranoid; rather, I think he’s being too charitable to conservatives who are being paranoid.)

As I have said, those who insist on “homicide bomber” claim that the “homicide” modifier is needed in order to convey the murderous nature of the bomber’s actions. But why? True, the word “bomber” need not refer to someone who kills anyone; etymologically, a “bomber” could merely be someone who sets off a bomb. But of course, that is not how the term is actually used. For example, no one who heard on the news a few years ago about the Olympic Park Bomber was in any doubt about what he was up to. They knew that he was interested in killing people, and not merely in providing some extra fireworks for the Summer Olympics. Same thing with the Unabomber. No one following the news had to have it explained to him that when the Unabomber mailed bombs to universities and airliners (hence the “Un” and the “a” in “Unabomber”), what he intended was to kill people, and not merely to damage mailboxes. And it would be simply absurd to insist that because the media didn’t refer to the terrorists in question as the “Olympic Park Homicide Bomber” and “Unahomicidebomber,” respectively, they must have had some ideological interest in downplaying the murderous nature of the crimes committed by Eric Rudolph and Ted Kaczynski.

Given the way “bomber” is actually used, then, “homicide bomber” is simply redundant. It’s like “grocery market”: In theory, a “market” could be a place to buy just about anything, but in practice the term is typically used to refer to a place to buy groceries, specifically, and adding “grocery” to it is superfluous and clunky. By contrast, “suicide bomber” is not only not redundant, but actually better conveys the reality described than “homicide bomber” does. An ordinary bomber kills others; but a suicide bomber is so intent on killing others that, unlike most bombers, he is willing to kill himself too in the process. Far from downplaying the level of depravity involved, “suicide bomber” in fact calls attention to it.

Bill claims that “suicide bomber” is insufficiently precise, because it does not differentiate between those suicide bombers who kill only themselves and those who also kill others. But as we’ve seen, “bomber,” given its standard usage, already conveys all by itself the idea that the intent was to kill others. “Suicide” functions merely to indicate that the bomber in question was willing to kill himself as well. And does anyone really think that when the media have made reference to “suicide bombers,” any sane reader or listener has taken this to mean that the bombers in question may have intended to kill only themselves and no one else? To ask the question is to answer it – especially since there are no “suicide bombers” who intend to kill only themselves (certainly none I’ve ever heard of). This is a non-issue, and conservatives should drop it.

(Incidentally, I have always found the expression “Intelligent Design” extremely annoying for the same reason. “Design” already implies intelligence, so that the expression “Intelligent Design” sounds to my ear redundant and inept. I am well aware that ID advocates claim that their usage is justified by the fact that Darwinians often use the word “design” as if it were something that could result from unintelligent processes. But the right way to counter such an abuse of language is to call attention to the fact that it is an abuse, not to introduce a further abuse of language. Of course, this is a terminological issue and has nothing to do with the substance of ID theory, though I have commented on that at length.)


  1. As someone who would be called conservative by most and who splits hairs on language topics practically as a hobby, I have to admit I'm a bit shaky on the "homicide bomber" thing for similar reasons. I can think of much better words to fight over (is anyone still doing the "don't call them terrorists" line, for example?)

    I mean, I do see Bill's point in a way. The word calls attention to the person's death, not the deaths they cause. But in this case.. well, you already said it all.

  2. And, of course, it must be said that it goes without saying that no post on linguistic redundancy in lagnuage use would be totally complete without being completed by a mention of "PIN numbers." :p

  3. Or "general panacea". Or "political correctness gone mad"-- since PC is already mad.

  4. What about Muslim Kamikaze?

  5. mpresley:


    Sharia Shrapnel?

    Body Bomber?

  6. I should think one would want a word with more moral condemnation than homicide. Homicide can be justified or excused or unintentional and therefore morally blameless. It is absent a mental state or mens rea. Murder is a subset of homicide, and murder has a moral component to it. It incorporates a mens rea: knowing intent. "Suicide bombers" are in fact mass murderers. They just don't murder their victims seriatim.

  7. Off topic...
    Has anyone here listened to this critique of the first way?

  8. Homicide bomber sounds like Pentagon-speak.

    IED what a mouthful, everyone knows they're a roadside bomb.

  9. Off-topic:

    Philosopher Gary Gutting criticizes Richard Dawkins' argument against God's existence:

  10. @Jime:

    I am rather amused by the comments which appear in response to Gutting. He clearly and soberly exposes the fact that Dawkins's "arguments" are no good, and what do the clear-thinking atheists do in response? They attack philosophy, even as they engage in it. Its rather like watching a child who, having been thrashed at chess, throws the board to the ground and yells "Stupid game!"

  11. I tend to agree and you can see this in the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy and those who insist that it's the misleading name that has caused the uproar and nothing about the project itself.

    But what about when Reuters reports in 2005 that "immigrants" were deported from France or "angry youths" were writing in and around Paris? Is that comparable, or is that just a failure to report the news that those immigrants and those rioting youths were deported and rioting for related reasons concerning their identity which was uniformly the same in both cases?