Since time immemorial (well, most of my life anyway) we've heard of suicide bombers. Generally of an extremist religious bent, these madmen (and, increasingly, madwomen - let's hear it for gender equality!) have given their own lives as an effective way to take others lives in a horrific display of commitment and anger.
"Suicide Bomber" has always seems a fairly straight-forward, descriptive term. Many bombers are clearly unwilling to go that far, and the diffence is important. If it were just a matter of the life of the bomber (about which very few sane people can be overly concerned), there would be little need to differentiate. However, the willingness to make that ultimate sacrifice makes a huge difference in the type and efficacy of bombings they perform. There are many ways to protect yourself against a non-suicidal attacker that are simply uneffective against someone willing to make their very body a vehicle of destruction. So the distinction between suicidal bombers and other terrorists seems relevant, not only in a linguistic but a security sense. Linguistic because, after all, most bombers are committing some form of homicide (whether strategic, industrial, or military bombings should be excepted from this is an argument for another day). Security because (some) different preparations must be taken against them.
On the other hand, it seems the Administration wants to emphasize the fact that they are not just suicidal, but homicidal. Perhaps the desire is to draw a distinction between the larger categories of bombers attacking buildings and infrastructure with relatively little loss of life and those attacking people. Or between the Good Bombers (us, for example, attacking Bad Guys - and hence not committing homicide, but dispensing justice) and the Bad Bombers (who are Bad Guys who kill Good Guys, hence commiting homicide). Perhaps they are concerned that the General Public will think "suicide bombers" are simply committing suicide in a dramatic way, and miss the fact that they generally take many innocents with them.
In any case, it is always interesting to note these intentional changes in the terms of discourse, and speculate as to the reasons underlying them. This is clearly not a case of "lexical drift", where there is a gradual change in nomenclatural preference in the populace as a whole, but a conscious attempt from the US leadership to change the terms we use to describe this terrible phenomenon. Is the Administration simply trying to use a clearer, more accurate term? This is their position, and while it seems less than obvious that "homicide bomber" is more accurate than "suicide bomber", since it in fact describes a less specific class - in fact one would think the latter a subset of the former - they may be right, or at least this may be their motivation.
Or is it a political maneuver? If so, what is the desired effect? One reporter in this morning's press conference asked if it was an attempt to appease those elements of the American public who feel the President is being too easy on the Palestinians. This is an interesting hypothesis - lexical 'tweaking' as a form of soft attack; perhaps we need a new term: "Lexical bombers"? If this is the motivation, it would seem unlikely to satisfy those who want to drop 'daisy-cutters' on Arafat's headquarters, but I may underestimate the importance of the change.
As mentioned above, it seems possible that it may be an attempt to draw more semantic boundaries between the types of bombing the US engages in and those the "Martyr's Brigade" undertakes - though certainly "suicide bombings" seems to do this at least as well. Is it just an attempt to make them seem more 'evil'? Certainly one can't argue with that, though if it comes at the expense of clarity, it could be argued that it makes a resolution more difficult by 'over-heating' the discourse.
Obviously, the particular terms used seem of little importance in the face of the horrific brutality we're witnessing (whichever side you blame, if you blame a single side). But it can be argued that these terms are relevant not only because they give a clue as to the political and cultural undercurrents of the situation, but can in fact effect those undercurrents.
What do you think?