Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Suicide Bomber/Homicide Bomber

Bill Keller is the Executive Editor of the New York Times. I saw him on C-Span 1 this morning. In response to a caller who brought up the issue of liberal bias in the NYT, Keller rightly pointed out that political opponents often try to seize control of the terminology in which debates are couched in order to gain an advantage over their adversaries. As one might expect, the examples he chose favored his liberal tilt. Thus he mentioned the Republican use of 'death tax' to refer to what is more commonly known as the estate tax, as well as the fairly recent tendency of Republicans and conservatives generally to use 'Democrat Party' instead of the more traditional 'Democratic Party.' I'll return to these examples in a moment; it is Keller's third example, however, that inspired this post.

He took exception to the practice of some conservatives who label what are more commonly known as suicide bombers as 'homicide bombers,' claiming that 'suicide bombers' is the correct term. Keller claimed in effect that a person who blows himself up is a suicide bomber, not a homicide bomber.

This is a very clear example of muddled thinking. Note first that anyone who commits suicide ipso facto commits homicide.* If memory serves, St Augustine somewhere argues against suicide using this very point. The argument goes something like this: (1) Homicide is wrong; (2) Suicide is a case of homicide; ergo, (3) Suicide is wrong. One can easily see from this that every suicide bomber is a homicide bomber. Indeed, this is an analytic proposition, and so necessarily true.

More importantly, the suicide bombers with which we are primarily concerned murder not only themselves but other people. As a matter of fact (as opposed to conceptual necessity), every suicide bomber is a homicide bomber not just in the sense that he kills himself, but also in the sense that he kills others.

Keller missed both of these points. Had he seen them, he would have appreciated that 'homicide bomber' is a perfectly accurate expression free of ideological taint. He would have seen that every suicide bomber is a homicide bomber, though not conversely. He would have grasped that suicide bombers are a proper subset of homicide bombers. (S is a proper subset of T iff S is a subset of T but S is not identical to T.)

Since the points I have just made are so simple and luminous, it is reasonable to conjecture that Keller was blinded to their alethic luminosity by his liberal bias, a bias that is reinforced on a quotidian basis by the crowd he runs with.

As to the other two examples, I am willing to concede that 'death tax' is inaccurate. It is not the event of dying that is being taxed, but the transfer of wealth that occurs on the occasion of dying when the wealth is greater than a certain amount. But calling the Democrat Party the Democrat Party is as accurate as can be. For it makes it clear that 'Democrat Party' is a proper name as opposed to a description. 'Democratic Party,' however, suggests that there is a description satisfaction of which is necessary for 'Democratic Party' to have a referent -- which is false. 'Democratic Party' refers to what it refers to even if the referent fails to be democratic. Dropping the '___ic' makes this clear.
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*Since the reference class for the sake of this discussion is human beings, we needn't consider such counterexamples as that of the nonhuman extraterrestrial who commits suicide, or the terrestrial nonhuman (a dolphin perhaps) who does so. If Dr. Spock or Dolly the Dolphin commit suicide, they do not thereby commit homicide.