"Homicide Bomber":

The term has long annoyed me (well, as long as Fox and others have been using it, which I suppose hasn't been that long), so I thought I'd repost Juan Non-Volokh's post on this from two and a half years ago (one paragraph break added):

"HOMICIDE BOMBERS": I know that it has become fashionable in some circles to use the term "homicide bomber" in place of "suicide bomber." This is unfortunate. Even though I am generally sympathetic to the political views of those who use the term, I think that it represents a positively Orwellian misuse of the English language for political purposes of exactly the sort that many who use the term would otherwise condemn.

Would it make any sense to refer to a murderer as a "homicide killer"? Should we have called the D.C. snipers the "homicide snipers"? Of course not. Why not? Because it is redundant and the addition of the word "homicide" does not clarify or provide additional detail. If a killer took his own life after that of his victim(s), it would make no sense to refer to him as a "homicide killer." The same is true here.

Indeed, the only purpose of inserting the word "homicide" is to make a political statement. Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of the English language. Any terrorist bomber who kills is a "homicide bomber." What is unique in these situations is not that a terrorist is killing people -- terrorists do that as a matter of course -- but that the terrorist is taking his (or, in at least one case, her) own life in the process. This is what makes suicide bombings different from an "ordinary" terrorist bombing -- and what makes this sort of attack particuarly difficult to stop.

I know what some of you are thinking: Somehow, using the phrase "suicide bomber" unnecessarily validates the actions of these terrorists, and downplays the evil nature of their attacks, whereas the phrase "homicide bomber" makes clear how terrible they are. Sorry, but I don't buy it. The phrase "suicide bomber" is simply more descriptive and accurate.

UPDATE: Many readers disagree with me -- as I suspected some might. A few have suggested alternative appellations for these deranged murderers. One is "kamikaze bomber." I agree that this is very descriptive. My one question would be whether this phrase implies an elemnet of martyrdom.

Another alternative is "suicide killer," though I tend to think "suicide bomber" conveys the same message. While it is conceivable that someone could be a "suicide bomber" without trying to kill others, I can not think of an example of this ever happening. The closest thing I can recall are political protesters who lit themselves on fire, but such acts are far more contained act than bombing.

I'm not quite as troubled by this as Juan is -- I don't think there's much damage done to the language as a result -- but "bomber" is a pejorative enough term, adding "suicide" adds important information while doing nothing to soften the pejorative, and adding "homicide" does little to strengthen the pejorative (especially since "homicide" is a bit legalese) while stripping away the information that "suicide" added.

7.12.2005 2:03pm
Grant Gould (mail):
I saw recently from Fox a reference to a "homicide bombing" where the death toll was zero. Surely that should have been an "attempted homicide bombing", or perhaps a "vandalism bombing".

Why, if they can't manage to utter the word "suicide" to describe an intentional act of self-destruction, they cannot simply stick to "bombing", I don't know. It would seem to convey the same reduced information, but without the weird phrasing.

One wonders also what activities other than bombing this should apply to. "It was a brutal act of Mass. C. 143 §3L Wiring a Lightswitch!"
7.12.2005 2:05pm
West (mail):

Descriptive, accurate, and deprecating. What more could you want?
7.12.2005 2:09pm
Larry (mail):
I think the attacks in London show the problems with the phrase, as reports begin to clarify whether or not the bombs were suicide bombs or timed. The phrase 'homicide bombers' applies to both, whereas 'suicide bombers' actually distinguishes the two cases. Language is supposed to be descriptive and when a phrase fails to distinguish the event it describes from something different, it is time to recognize that new (or in this case, old) phraseology is required.
7.12.2005 2:21pm
One thing that annoys me is when news reports give a death total for a suicide bombing that includes the bomber. They should say something like "12 victims and the bomber" died, not "13 died in a suicide bombing." It's a minor point, but I think it's important to distinguish between the terrorist and his/her/its victims.
7.12.2005 2:22pm
"Homicide" bomber almost lends more credence to the activity. Not only is "homicide" legalese, but in the law enforcement sense, it is used to differentiate the death of one person at the hand of another from accidents and suicides. Therefore, if a woman being raped in her home stabs her attacker to death, this is a "homicide," even though it is self-defense, i.e., a "justifiable homicide." Using the word "homicide" consequently muddies the waters, since some homicides are legal and ok with us as a culture.

Using the phrase "suicide bomber" implies the "wrongness" of the action in several ways. Culturally, we tend to believe that suicide is wrong -- "suicide is not the answer." Additionally, committing suicide in a loud and public manner, wherein you traumatize other people, or even kill them, is clearly not acceptable behavior. Committing a "homicide" sometimes can be.
7.12.2005 2:29pm
Michael B (mail):
Homicide bomber helps distinguish between those who are benevolent bombers. What is wrong with the hyphenated term homicide/suicide bomber? It's descriptive and ideologically innocuous.
7.12.2005 2:35pm
A. Nonymous (mail):
Suicide Bomber contains two elements. The person triggers the bomb and dies from it. This covers not only the person who walks into a bar, detonates and takes 15 people with him for Cause X, but also the depressed kid who decides to off themselves by TNT or whatnot.

Homicide Bomber makes clear that the person triggers the bomb and kills other people, a very important element here. That they take their own life (or don't) is frankly really not the point. It is the death of another or others.

Yes, yes suicide can be defined by some as a homicide or self-homicide, but a common understanding (the?) in American English is that homicide is killing others, suicide self.
7.12.2005 2:37pm
I've got to go with "splodeydope" myself. It has the added advantage of slinging an insult, which is not a trivial consideration when using words overheard by potential splodeydopes who are members of an honor/shame society.

cathy :-)
7.12.2005 2:43pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Would the depressed kid who offs himself by TNT (is that common, by the way?) even be called a "suicide bomber" by anyone? Probably not, it seems to me, just as someone who kills himself with a gun wouldn't be called a "suicide shooter."
7.12.2005 2:50pm
theDA (mail):
off the subject a bit, but does anyone have a book recomendation dealing with terrorists/ afgan/ 911?

7.12.2005 2:53pm
A. Nonymous (mail):
Probably not, it seems to me, just as someone who kills himself with a gun wouldn't be called a "suicide shooter."

We've seen the phrase "suicide by cop" come up. And the kid with the TNT could be called a “suicide bomber” in fact, probably more accurately since in that phrase each and every element is covered with none left out.

The decision, conscious or no, to refer to people who kill others as "suicide bombers" suggests (no outright states) that the deaths of the others are NOT relevant. The only aspects of the crime that are described are 1) the bombing and 2) that the person killed themselves in the process. Thus, the bomber is relevant, the bomber is mentioned, their death is important enough to state. That others died is not.

The decision by Fox News to remind viewers at every step of the way the real point (this was about the deaths of others &not just the person who strapped the bomb on themselves) is a good one. Anything else, such as "suicide bomber", is just a euphemism and cuts out the most important element of the story.
7.12.2005 2:58pm
Juan's right. "Homicide bomber" is Orwellian posturing. Usually when politicians or the media report on these bombings, although they use the word "suicide bomber," they focus on the fact that the bomber killed other people.

Simply refusing to refer to them as "noble martyrs" is all the statement one needs to make without distorting the English language. I think that disapproval of their methods and lack of respect for their purposes is clear enough from the rest of the speaker's speech without this distortion.

TheDA: I hear that the 9/11 Commission report is pretty good.
7.12.2005 3:12pm
chris (mail):
howzabout "sucker-bomber"?
7.12.2005 3:27pm
chris (mail):
or... CHD: "combustible human device"
or... IEH: "improvised exploding human"
or... 72VSD: "seventy-two virgin-seeking device"
or... DI: "dead idiot"
7.12.2005 3:31pm
ed in texas (mail):
As I understand from my son in Afghanistan, the current vogue term among military sappers is "not so smart bomb."
7.12.2005 3:38pm
htom (mail):
I've long prefered "cowardly bomber", from their desire not to be caught and tried. "Suicide bomber", to my ear, praises the killer, and may not be accurate these days when some of them seem to have been kidnap victims themselves. "Homicide bomber" seems redundant and wouldn't be accurate if he didn't get anyone else.

"Splodeydope", now, that's wordsmithing.
7.12.2005 3:47pm
A. Nonymous (mail):
"Homicide bomber" is Orwellian posturing.

I disagree, if anything it is much more clear and descriptive as to what is happening. What is Orwellian is not calling this sort of attack what it is and shifting the focus. This is not just one person killing themselves with an explosive. This is a person committing homicide(s) with a bomb.

The story, the important element is on the victims of the homicide, not on the person who is committing the crime. Yet "suicide bomber" places the entirety of the focus on that person's act and the impact ON HIM (or to be fair, her) with no statement as to the impact it had on others.

Of course if you want to shift the focus away from the results and concentrate solely on the criminal committing the act, "suicide bomber" works. As for me, I'm much more concerned with those who were killed by the homicide that bomber committed and want the focus on those homicides.
7.12.2005 3:55pm
"Islamonazi kamikaze"

It rhymes!
7.12.2005 3:55pm
Hugh59 (mail):
How about we refer to them as "cowardly murderers." Frankly, I think we should hurl as many epithets and insults at the attackers and the people who encourage them.
7.12.2005 4:07pm
Nathan_M (mail):
Instapundit posted an article earlier today which I think shows just how much the term "homicide bomber" distorts English.

LEEDS, England — Four bombers, each believed to have been armed with a separate bomb, died in last week's terror attacks on London, Sky News reported Tuesday, quoting police sources.

The latest development gives weight to the theory that the blasts were carried out by homicide bombers. There had been earlier speculation that the explosives were detonated remotely, with timing devices.

It doesn't make sense unless you know that the meaning of "homicide" in "homicide bomber" has competely parted company with the meaning of homicide in the English language.

It's especially ridiculous to see the suggestion that maybe the London bombings were not carried out by "homicide bombers".
7.12.2005 4:19pm
If someone plants a bomb in a public place and kills people, they would be a "bomber," but no one would ever refer to them as a "homicide bomber." The entire point of the word "homicide" is to distinguish between a bombing where the bomber kills himself and a bombing where he does not. So, to "prove" that we don't really care about the person who committed the bombing, we use a word that ostensibly suggests we only care about the killing, but in reality, the word is nonsensical unless the listener understands that "homicide" is really code for "suicide."
7.12.2005 4:35pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
I hate to bring up the position that got Bill Maher fired from ABC, but as much as we would like to call people who blow themselves and others up "cowards", it is a misuse of the term. A "coward" is someone who attempts to harm others while escaping any harm or punishment themselves.

People who blow themselves and others up are evil. But they are not, properly speaking, "cowards".
7.12.2005 5:14pm
Michael B (mail):

That's not obviously or necessarily true, Bill Maher's authoritative statement on the matter notwithsstanding. It often enough takes more courage to face life than death. There have been dissident Palestinians for example who, because of their positions contra Arafat and company, have been summarily shot or hung. I'd say that took rather more courage, given the culture, than to opt out for a suicide/homicide pact. Blanket statements like that are not convincing, even though Bill Maher is unquestionably authoritative on any number of issues.

Not that I'd presume to judge any one individual's motives, that's another matter.
7.12.2005 5:34pm
htom (mail):
Dilan -- cowards in that they appear to expect to be rewarded, not punished, for their evil-doing.
7.12.2005 5:50pm
1. I suppose the "coward" thing just depends on what you think of the merits of suicide.

2. A. Nonymous, there's nothing wrong focusing on the deaths of innocents rather than the deaths of the perpetrator, but this can easily be done by discussing the incident in that sort of way. Co-opting a term looks like an impotent protest. It's as if you refuse to acknowledge that the bombers died, but you still expect people to know what you meant and that they did.

If you think that it's unjust to focus on whether the bombers died, just use the term "bombers." Say that the buses and trains were blown up by bombs. What strikes me as odd is why the news media (or Jim Lindgren) cares whether the bombs were timed or strapped to terrorists, unless they think that they'll gain some insight into al Qaeda's methods. I care more about the innocents who died than I do about a worthless pile of animated terrorist flesh.
7.12.2005 6:59pm
Warmongering Lunatic:
May I suggest "self-executing bomber"? A bit clumsier and somewhat less precise than "suicide bomber", but it makes the point and does no violence to the ordinary meaning of words. And that someone was "self-executed" implies they were guilty (as these bombers are) in a way that "suicide" does not.
7.12.2005 7:05pm
joe in texas (mail):
personally, i like IEH (improvised exploding human)
7.12.2005 9:22pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
Michael B: I don't buy it. I think most human beings, even religious ones, fear death. In any event, what about suicide bombers who DO fear death? Do they avoid the "coward" label? And how do you know whether these particular bombers feared death or not?

htom: I don't buy your distinction either. Many people who do things we would call courageous (i.e., not cowardly) do it because they want to be rewarded. For instance, Hollywood stuntmen risk their lives for pecuniary reward. That doesn't make them any less courageous. Same goes for well-compensated firefighters.

And I don't buy that all these suicide bombers expect to be rewarded. How do you know if they really, fervently believe, in the whole 70 virgins thing? And if they are actually atheists or non-fundamentalists, that makes them not cowards?

WB: I don't think it's the view of suicide. I think it's the desire to call suicide bombers-- who, after all, are profoundly evil people-- anything in the book. The desire to condemn them overwhelms any attempt to use accurate language. And we also don't want to say something that is quite discomforting, though true. That actually, these people are people who are willing to die for their cause, wrongful though it may be. By calling them cowards, we avoid having to confront the enormity of their voluntary sacrifice.

I am sympathetic to this-- I don't exactly want to contemplate how much guts it takes to strap a bomb around your chest either. But the fact that we wish that they might have chickened out is not an excuse for perverting the language and calling them chickens.
7.12.2005 9:24pm
The reason terrorists are "cowardly" has nothing to do with homicide, suicide, or any of that. The reason they are cowardly is that they attack innocent civilians who can't fight back.
7.12.2005 9:42pm
Dave D (mail):
Hmm. I grew up watching war movies like the Dirty Dozen where Americans going on suicide missions were heroes. (Some survived against all odds of course.) They were brave, and certainly not cowardly. I've always seen the concept of a suicide bomber as a variation of any other suicide mission.

Not to invoke Godwin, but as another example, Germans conspirators at various times planned suicide bomb assassination attempts against Hitler (the July Bomb plot), and looking back we are sorry none succeeded. We (I think) see Japanese pilots' kamikaze strategy as a regretful waste of young lives, but certainly not cowardly.

I don't mean to romanticize the notion of suicide bombing, and I'm certainly glad the US hasn't been put into a position of desperation where we'd see that as an acceptable loss of lives, but it's odd to attack that aspect of these bombings, and it seems like frustrated lashing out. The true focus of scorn should be on the fact that they're targetting civilians, and getting caught up in the method is a distraction.

(There is also the abhorrent variation of suicide bombing that's been reported in Iraq--forcing unwilling Iraqis, including women and children, to strap on bombs.)
7.12.2005 9:47pm
Michael B (mail):

The point made was they are not necessarily courageous, not that any individual homicide/suicide bomber is not courageous. As regards that I indicated: "Not that I'd presume to judge any one individual's motives, that's another matter." Am not assumming they're cowardly either btw.

Further, when young children are recruited into the cause is that because of bravery or a result of indoctrination and societal manipulation, beginning at such a young age that it's viewed as a generally healthy response? The most grievous example I've heard of, that obviously involved manipulation rather than courage, was this story of a down syndrome child in Iraq. I understand that is the extreme case. But presuming to know the motivations of any single homicide/suicide bomber, whether it is in fact courage or whether it's fear of not being accepted by the family, tribe, society, etc. if one fails to go through with the mission is not, imo, as apparent as some make it out to be.
7.12.2005 11:23pm
Lars Jacobsen (mail):

A few have suggested alternative appellations for these deranged murderers. One is "kamikaze bomber." I agree that this is very descriptive. My one question would be whether this phrase implies an elemnet of martyrdom.

"Kamikaze" literally means "divine wind." (Or at least I think that's what it means--any Japanese-speakers out there?) So it implies more than just an "element of martyrdom"--it is downright jihadist!
7.13.2005 12:25am
Dave D (mail):

Kamikaze, the "divine wind", originally was the typhoon that saved Japan from a Mongol invasion in the 13th century by decimating the attacking fleet. Far more devastating than the losses that the Spanish Armada suffered from weather centuries later, it seemed heaven sent.

In WWII, Halsey's 3rd Fleet suffered a lot of damage from typhoons as well, so to the Japanese, it seemed like supernatural intervention once again.

The term is too steeped in Japanese history and legend to be casually slapped onto jihadist bombers...
7.13.2005 2:01am
Dave D (mail):
The Spanish Armada of course, was wrecked returning from a failed invasion of England...the attack itself having been delayed by bad weather. Sailing home around the north of Ireland, it was savaged by storms.
7.13.2005 2:05am
"self-executing bomber"

Oh good Lord, this may be worse than "homicide bombings" if that is possible.

I am most familiar with the phrase "self-executing" in the context of "self-executing treaty", meaning a treaty that does not need additional implementing legislation. There's also self-executing computer code....When I hear self-executing, I think of those things, not execution as in killing. So self-executing bomber suggests an unmanned B-2 like in that crap Stealth movie, or perhaps a bomber who spontaneously combusts without the aid of explosives.

Useful, specific terms that convey important information should be used. They should not be mucked around with because they are too condemnatory or not condemnatory enough. ("Suicide bomber" praises the attacker how exactly?) I've been arguing elsewhere that the BBC should just stop with the navel gazing about "terrorist" for the exact same reason, but at least when the BBC does it they substitute something reasonably descriptive and useful like "bomber" and "gunman", rather than nonsensical stuff like homicide bombers.
7.13.2005 5:34am
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
Steve: why does it matter if the victims "can't fight back" if the suicide bomber is killing him- or herself anyway? And further, many suicide bombers attack military personnel who CAN fight back. Does that make THEM "non-cowards". People here are just coming up with justifications out of nowhere to defend a habitual, but poor, word choice.

Michael B: I think you miss the point. People aren't evaluating each individual suicide bomber's motivations; they are just calling them all "cowards". So you can't defend that word choice just by saying that a few of them might actually be cowards.
7.13.2005 5:12pm
Glaivester (mail) (www):
"Of course if you want to shift the focus away from the results and concentrate solely on the criminal committing the act, "suicide bomber" works. As for me, I'm much more concerned with those who were killed by the homicide that bomber committed and want the focus on those homicides."

But the point of terms like "suicide bomber" is to explain how the people were killed, i.e. by someone blowing himself up. We use the term "suicide bomber" to distinguish people who blow themselves up to kill other people from those who use, e.g., remote-controlled bombs to do so. If we were trying to distinguish people who bomb with the intention of killing from those who bomb with the intention of causing property damage, then "homicide bomber" would make sense as a term.

"What strikes me as odd is why the news media (or Jim Lindgren) cares whether the bombs were timed or strapped to terrorists, unless they think that they'll gain some insight into al Qaeda's methods. I care more about the innocents who died than I do about a worthless pile of animated terrorist flesh."

Uh - so you don't care whether or not the people most directly responsible for this bombing are still alive and at large? If they're dead, I don't feel sorry for them, but I definitely want to know if they're still alive and at large. And yes, we do want to gain insight into al Qaeda's methods. Finding out exactly how this bombing was carried out is important.
7.13.2005 8:02pm