By Robert Goldney
To some this heading may seem unexpected. The term ‘suicide bomber’ has entered our lexicon on the obvious basis that although the prime aim may have been the killing of others, the individual perpetrator dies. Indeed, over the last three decades the media, the general public, and sometimes the scientific community have uncritically used the words ‘suicide bomber’ to describe the deaths of those who kill others, sometimes a few, usually ten to twenty, or in the case of 9/11, about two thousand, while at the same time killing themselves.
Like many areas of human behaviour, these actions have been subjected to rigorous investigation and it is timely to reflect on the findings. Detailed studies have generally shown that there is little in common with those who die by suicide, using ‘suicide’ in its historically clinically accepted sense.
For example, in an early review in 2007, Ellen Townsend, a psychologist from the University of Nottingham, concluded that available evidence demonstrated that so called ‘suicide bombers’ had a range of characteristics which on close examination were not truly suicidal, and that attempting to find commonalities between them and those who died by suicide was likely to be an unhelpful path for any discipline wishing to further understand suicidal behaviour.Furthermore, in 2009 the psychiatrist, Jerrold Post and his colleagues at the George Washington University referred to the ‘normality’ and absence of individual psychopathology of suicide bombers. Most other researchers have reported similar findings, although it is fair to acknowledge that the psychologist, Ariel Merari of Tel Aviv University, has expressed contrary views which have stimulated spirited and at times acrimonious debate, and there is the recent polemical work of the English Literature graduate and criminal justice Associate Professor of the University of Alabama, Adam Lankford.
From the point of view of experienced clinical psychiatrists, the usual feelings of hopelessness and unbearable psychic pain along with self-absorbtion and restriction of options in those who are suicidal are the antithesis of terrorist acts, and mental disorders do not appear to be a prominent feature. In fact, suicidal intent is usually specifically denied by ‘suicide bombers’, as it is proscribed by most religions, including Islam and Christianity. Indeed, Islam condemns suicide as a major sin with committers denied entry to heaven, and, as it is implied that the act of a ‘suicide bomber’ results in a shorter path to heaven, this would not be achieved if suicide intent was present.
Is focusing on the words an academic distraction, or could it be important?
It is pertinent to recall the saying ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, attributed to Cardinal Richelieu by Edward Bulwer-Lyton in his 1839 play, which has entered our everyday language. My colleagues, fellow psychiatrist Murad Khan of the Aga Khan University and sociologist Riaz Hassan of Flinders University, who has collated the largest database in the world of such acts, and I are mindful of that saying and believe that the words do matter. We discussed this in more detail in 2010 in the Asian Journal of Social Science.
It has long been recognized that inappropriate publicity promotes further suicide, and the psychiatrist, Seb Littman of the University of Calgary in 1985 noted that the more there is any reporting of suicide, the more there is a tendency for it to be normalized as an understandable and reasonable option. That being so, the repeated use of the term ‘suicide bomber’ runs the risk of normalizing such behaviour, simply because of the frequent use of the words.
That the term ‘homicide bomber’ was more appropriate was probably first suggested by the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer in 2002. However, perhaps because of that provenance it has all but been ignored.
It is time to address this again. Although the word ‘homicide’ is not entirely accurate because of the political/military context in which these deaths occur, it is more appropriate than the continued use of the word ‘suicide’. Furthermore, it has the potential to modify this behaviour. Whereas suicide can be portrayed as altruistic, there is nothing glamorous or idealistic about homicide.
Clearly there is no simple answer to what has occurred increasingly over the last decades. However, by the use of the words ‘homicide bomber’ a gradual change in the worldwide interpretation and acceptability of these acts may occur. Representatives of the media are urged to consider this change.
Robert Goldney AO, MD is the author of Suicide Prevention, Second Edition (OUP). He is Emeritus Professor in the Discipline of Psychiatry at the University of Adelaide. He has researched and published in the field of suicidal behaviors for 40 years and has been President of both the International Association for Suicide Prevention and the International Academy of Suicide Research.
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Image credit: September 11 Memorial, New York, USA via iStockPhoto.