April 26, 2002

“Homicide Bombers” revisited…

The power to define, and make it stick, is arguably the premier political power. To control the definitions of terms is to control the debate by bracketing how the audience may think about an issue. To create new terms is to create new realities. We saw an excellent example of this on 12 April 2002 when White House press secretary Ari Fleischer introduced new a term for the Palestinian men and women who are blowing themselves up in public places: homicide bombers.

The press took immediate notice of the new term, which is exactly what Fleischer and the Bush administration wanted. This is a calculated move. Press secretaries are not at liberty to make up new terms on the fly. That could cause major headaches and damaging political fallout.

As reported by Reuters:

“The president condemns this morning’s homicide bombing,” Fleischer told reporters. He called on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to “speak out and denounce today’s homicide attack. Asked why he had stopped referring to “suicide bombers,” as he has in the past, Fleischer said the new term was more accurate. “These are not suicide bombings. These are not people who just kill themselves. These are people who deliberately go to murder others, with no regard to the values of their own life,” he said. “It’s not suicide, it’s murder.”

Seems like common sense. Obviously these bombers go to public places to explode their bombs for the purpose of killing people. Isn’t this simply putting a finer point on a situation that is plainly understood as terrorism? Isn’t this simply being more “accurate.”

Not quite. While I am certainly not condoning the bombing, I wish to point out that this change in terms is not politically innocent. The Bush administration–no administration–redefines terms or creates new terms outside of political considerations. In this case, the new term helps further delegitimize the bombers. What’s wrong with that? Perhaps nothing, except that the term may also further delegitimize the larger cause of the Palestinian people, which is the establishment of an independent state. In other words, this new term might further aggravate the idea of guilt by proximity, as if all Palestinians think and act alike in regard to the violence.

Suicide bombers might be fighting for legitimate political ends (establishment of a state) by decidedly illegitimate means (the murder of civilians or non-combatants). A “homicide bomber” is simply a criminal who wishes to kill outside of political goals. While it is possible under some circumstances to condone the violence of a “freedom fighter,” this new term adds further distance between any legitimate concept or action and the abhorent actions of the homicide bombers.

2 Responses

  1. Lucy 

    I liked your article and wonder if you have written other ones mentioning implications arsing from the change from suicide to homicide bombers. Legal implications, perhaps?
    Thank you very much for your attention, I am very interested in this specific topic
    Lucy Petroucic, SP, BRazil

  2. There’s another trouble with substituting “homicide bomber” for “suicide bomber.” The usefulness of any word is the specificity with which it identifies one item or concept to exclusion of all others. When we know exactly what we mean by a word, we can deal with it more effectively. The term “momicide bomber” conflates the suicide bombers with all other murderers who use bombs. This adds a layer of judgment, as if that were needed for “suicide bombers.” What it obscures is the trait that sets these terrorists apart from all others–the fact that they kill themselves in the course of their deeds. Our usual idea of how to stop criminals of any stripe is to punish them. You may be able to thwart homicide bombers by promising to catch and execute them. You can’t thwart suicide bombers that way. Calling them “suicide bombers” encourages us to think about these people, and what makes them tick, and what we can do about them. Calling them “homicide bombers” encourages us judge them harshly and not think clearly about how to end this plague.