Why Mention the "Suicide" in Suicide Bomber At All,

some readers ask? Because it's very relevant to how we can fight this sort of killing.

It's much harder to deter suicide bombers than nonsuicide bombers. It's harder to watch for suspicious objects (it's one thing to watch for abandoned backpacks, another to watch for backpacks on people's backs). Techniques used for blocking nonsuicide bombers (for instance, preventing nonpassengers from getting bombs on the plane) won't work as well for suicide bombers.

More broadly, knowing that your enemy is willing to blow themselves up in order to kill you is also surely relevant for understanding the enemy -- not as a means of forgiving them, but as a means of better fighting them. That so many Islamist terrorists are willing to face not just the risk of death but the certainty of death tells us something about the nature of Islamist terrorism (though doubtless different people have different views about what exactly it tells us). That Islamist terrorism seems to be the one form of terrorism -- at least of the forms seen recently in the West -- that employs suicide bombing may itself be an important datum.

So the "suicide" in "suicide bomber" is actually important information. Omitting it strips away important information, and adding "homicide" adds very little: While bombings aimed only at destroying property are possible, I suspect few people think of them these days when they hear "bomber" on the news. And since it seems quite unlikely that someone would deliberately kill himself just to bomb property, I'm pretty sure that when people hear "suicide bomber," they almost always assume that he was trying to kill others.

angua (mail) (www):
I think this usage originated not so much as a strike back against "suicide bomber" but as a strike back agaist a certain kind of coverage of suicide bombers. The BBC, in particular, after every suicide bombing in Israel, used to run a biography of the bomber, his weeping family, etc., and then add a footnote saying "some Israelis also died." They don't seem to do this as much any more.

There is nothing wrong with the term "suicide bomber." There was something wrong with an attitude that said the "suicide" part made the bomber a worthwhile person to try and understand.
7.12.2005 7:46pm
Nathan_M (mail):

There was something wrong with an attitude that said the "suicide" part made the bomber a worthwhile person to try and understand.

How can we stop these people without understanding them?
7.12.2005 8:09pm
By killing them.
7.12.2005 8:48pm
M (mail):
I suppose they are not "in the west" (but I'm not sure why that matters here) but as I understand it, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka have also used suicide bombings recently, and they are not Islamic.
7.12.2005 8:49pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Understanding people has many advantages. One of them is that it can help you figure out how to more effectively kill them. (Naturally, this is an "advantage" in the moral sense only in certain circumstances, but in those circumstances it actually often proves to be very useful.)
7.12.2005 9:10pm
LiquidLatex (mail):
The Tamil Tigers also operate the day to day necessities for the entire right side of Sri Lanka. It is also the only terrorist/rebel organization with a working navy. Needless to say a completely different type of organization and way to deal with them than a few sick and depraved brits.

The 'suicide' in suicide bomber is very important distinction. Even more important is the apparent fact these were british citizens doing an act against their own countrymen. Most importantly it seems these people did their acts in an attempt to force the British government to pull out of Iraq instead of using legal means of doing so in a country evenly divided for and against the war.
7.12.2005 9:39pm
Chris Lansdown (mail) (www):
"Understanding" someone has two connotations:

(1) Knowing their premises and thoughts about the world so as to be able to predict their actions.

(2) Being sympathetic to them so as to desire their success.

A whitewash of a terrorist suicide-bomber's actions and past can achieve #2 without achieving #1, and I believe that many people thought of the BBC biographies as designed to do just that.
7.12.2005 10:51pm
David McDuff (mail) (www):
It's probably a good idea to have some sense of the history of suicide terrorism. In particular, its use at the end of the 19th century by Russian anarchists and social revolutionaries, who killed both themselves and their victims. There are quite a few parallels to be drawn between then and now - though of course nowadays the whole thing has become "democratized": now the victims are not so much the rulers as the ruled.
7.13.2005 6:19am
The Editors, American Federalist Journal (mail) (www):
Outside the terrorism context, when some crazy kills his family or his co-workers and then kills himself, it's commonly referred to as a "murder-suicide."

So how about "murder-suicide bomber"?
7.13.2005 11:52am
If, after a bombing, the authorities were to dispose of the body parts of the bomber in a particularly unpleasant way, does anyone think this might be a deterrent?
7.13.2005 11:54am
Nick B (mail):
> Chris Lansdown...

Yep. I concur fully.

Here's a better idea: Let's call them "murderous pig-f***ing terrorist bastards" instead of "suicide bombers".

...No, that might hurt the feelings of their bereaving families as they walk to the bank to cash their martyr checks in...

Can't have that, can we now?
7.14.2005 6:17am