Wednesday, January 11, 2006


In his most recent "Skeptic" column for Scientific American, Michael Shermer makes an interesting case for re-naming acts of suidice bombers 'murdercide.' Shermer explains:

Police have an expression for people who put themselves into circumstances that force officers to shoot them: "suicide by cop." Following this lingo, suicide bombers commit "suicide by murder," so I propose we call such acts "murdercide": the killing of a human or humans with malice aforethought by means of self-murder.

The reason we need semantic precision is that suicide has drawn the attention of scientists, who understand it to be the product of two conditions quite unrelated to murdercide: ineffectiveness and disconnectedness. According to Florida State University psychologist Thomas Joiner, in his remarkably revealing scientific treatise Why People Die by Suicide (Harvard University Press, 2006): "People desire death when two fundamental needs are frustrated to the point of extinction; namely, the need to belong with or connect to others, and the need to feel effective with or to influence others."

By this theory, the people who chose to jump from the World Trade Center rather than burning to death were not suicidal; neither were the passengers on Flight 93 who courageously fought the hijackers for control of the plane that ultimately crashed into a Pennsylvania field; and neither were the hijackers who flew the planes into the buildings.


John Lombard said...

I don't like this because I don't think Newspeak is OK if you think you have a good reason.

But I'll admit it -- in trying to stay impartial, the media has over the years tied itself up in knots over terrorism. Sometimes, the results have been ugly.

But "suicide bomber" is fine with me -- you know what it means just hearing it (guy who blows himself up to kill people). Murdercide implies he sort-of "double-kills" people. It sounds like the title of a movie where Peter Sellers plays a bumbling private eye.

One thing I do remember from my competely inept study of psychology is the importance of comprehensiveness to a theory -- so, if our definitions of suicide don't cover this phenomenon, we shouldn't just rewrite the definition of that phenomenon, we need a broader theory.

Besides, neither "murdercide" or the theory of suicide of Thomas Joiner encompass, for example, the Buddhist priest who sets himself on fire as protest. It's suicide, but outside Joiner's theory -- better for Joiner to acknowledge that he has a theory for a kind of suicide, not for suicide in general.

Hume's Ghost said...

I think the term is confusing, although I can appreciate the desire for a clinical distinction between someone who is 'suicidal' and someone who kills themself for non-'suicidal' reasons.

As you suggest, Shermer's murdercide would have to be a subset of suicide.