Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Shaving with Occam: Language and Meaning

Today I was on my way to lunch, sort of lazily scanning some southeastern CT stations, when I chanced upon an NPR report which talked about a "homicide bomber" having committed an attack in Peshawar which left carnage and destruction in his wake.

This term has always troubled me (and a quick Google search just revealed that I'm far from alone on this). The idea, first widely popularized by Rupert Murdoch and Fox News, is that the term 'suicide bomber' places too much emphasis on the bomber as the victim, whereas 'homicide bomber' places the proper emphasis and remembrance on those killed. As someone who is "branching" in Military Intel, I'm concerned more with tactics than political correctness, and the term 'homicide bomber' robs me of a key piece of instant tactical awareness.

If you say, for instance, that a 'suicide bomber' walked into a hotel and killed two dozen people, I have a decent idea right off the bat how it happened, and how I would brief the threat to the people concerned about the area in question -- maybe they should be especially wary of young men with unusual bulges around the chest area. But if you try to force a term like 'homicide bomber' I'm left clueless about what happened -- was the bomb left in a room and remotely detonated, was it projected into the building, or was it planted downstairs by an employee with special access? I've got no idea.

To an infantry company, the difference between the SVBIED threat and the VBIED threat is a really big deal -- one is a suicide vehicle-borne IED, the other just a vehicle-borne IED. One would typically be driven into a crowded area or right to a manned checkpoint for casualty infliction, the other would usually be an unattended parked car.

I knew that Fox News was insisting on the 'homicide bomber' usage, but was surprised to hear it used on NPR. Besides taking away important tactical knowledge, I really don't think the term 'homicide bomber' is any solace for the victims of those attacks or their families.

A couple hours after I got back, I decided to throw cable news on as background noise while I prepped a brief for tomorrow morning. Right away, I heard the terrible news about the shooting today at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Thankfully, due to the quick trigger work of some well-trained guards, the deranged, racist, anti-Semitic lunatic who executed the attack did not carry out anywhere near the level of human destruction of which he was capable.

Tragically, however, a guard was killed in the attack. Stephen Tyrone Johns died in the line of duty of preventing an attack that, had some things gone differently, could have killed many others. And much like the White House policeman who gave his life at Blair House to save that of President Truman, Johns' life and death will not generate anywhere near the buzz or attention of that of his killer (or a pardon from President Carter many years later, for that matter).

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the punditocracy on the same network that popularized the term 'homicide bomber' was chock full of theories about what inspired the killer, who was CLEARLY already deranged, had written extensive racist and anti-Semitic rants, and had already served jail time for an attack against our government. By a ratio that I couldn't possibly quantify in 'hard' terms, it was he -- not Johns -- who seemed to be the focus of their attention. A quick scan of Internet news just showed me that his picture, not Johns', is dominating most sites' leads.

Was it a sign of a lunatic fringe reacting against a government run by a person of color?

Was it a statement about ex-military members who are radicalized by right-wing extremist groups?

Was it an expression of endemic anti-Semitism running just beneath the surface of this society?

Personally, I'm not sold on any of these. I think it was the work of a single violent, twisted individual with decades of documented racist and anti-Semitic expression acting on his own crazy volition. Considering he's been out of the military for more than sixty years, I'm not putting any extra credence in warnings about ex-servicemembers' radicalization. I wouldn't empower him as being the "voice" of anything any more than I would say that a single 15 year-old kid with a chest full of nails and ball bearings speaks for the people of Gaza and the West Bank.

Instead, tonight, my thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Johns and his family.


C R Krieger said...

I agree.

Well, except for the part that talks about the sanity of this or that person who shoots someone in what can be taken as a political context.  One of the problems with the old Soviet Union was that they used psychiatry as a tool to control the population.  We should be very careful to not fall into that trap.  To characterize the left or the right as a mental disease is a dangerous thing.

The families of people who are having problems need to take responsibility.  Once this person commits a public act of terrorism, then we need to treat it as the crime it is, so that we don't get into missing the fact that political acts have consequences.

And, I am one of those who believe those two soldiers deserve the Purple Heart.  They were shot by someone claiming the cover of being an enemy force.  As for the actor, put him in Gitmo, until the Democrats in Congress can figure out if there is money to close Gitmo.

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...


Interesting take on the families and responsibility...brings to mind the Unabomber -- we're all better off for the fact that his brother did the right thing as soon as he saw the Manifesto.

We'll have to agree to disagree on the sanity thing -- I know it's a shameless low blow to doubt someone's mental health during an argument/disagreement (as the USSR did with dissenters), and I'm not trying to be Johnny Psychologist here, but if you look at the killer's track record and don't look sane to me.