Words and Politics: Homicide Bomber

On 12 April, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer used the term homicide bomber to describe what had previously been called suicide bombers. “The president condemns this morning’s homicide bombing. […] These are not suicide bombings. These are not people who kill just themselves,” Fleischer said. “These are people who deliberately go to murder others, with no regard to the values of their own life. These are murderers.”
Fleischer is not the first to use the term. Various conservative political groups have been using it since at least March.

Political opinions aside, the linguistic question is how successful the White House will be in redefining the lingo of terrorism, and whether or not their choice is a sensible one.

Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson coined the term suicide bomber in October 1983 in reference to the bombing of U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. The term is apt because it describes the salient difference between a traditional and a suicide bombing. Terrorists traditionally favor bombs because they can be planted and the bomber can be long gone when the bomb explodes. With suicide bombings, this is not the case. The bomber has no intention of escaping.

Further, the choice of homicide is not one that suits the White House’s political purpose. Homicide is a morally neutral term. It simply describes an act that results in the death of another person. Homicides can be justifiable, and a state commits homicide when it executes a criminal. The words that express moral outrage at homicide are murder and manslaughter. The term that Fleischer was looking for is murderous bomber.

But the larger question is whether Fleischer, or anyone else, should attempt to deliberately alter the linguistic landscape. For the most part, such attempts are doomed to failure. Neologisms are successfully coined when the term fills a linguistic void. Suicide bomber was one such term. There was a need to distinguish a bomber who deliberately takes his or her own life from the traditional, anonymous kind.

There isn’t any such need for homicide bomber. While it’s not strictly redundant, bombings are all too often homicidal in nature. And the term bomber on its own carries opprobrium. Bucking the linguistic trend of the English language is rather futile.

It is highly unlikely that the term homicide bomber will enter the general vocabulary and have life beyond last month’s Sunday morning talk shows.

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