I forgot to mention that yesterday’s piece on truth came about because one of the temporary bloggers at Andrew Sullivan’s Dish, Zoe Pollock, saw fit to link to the original piece by Bill Vallicella. Apparently I wasn’t the only person who took exception to Vallicella’s nonsense: in today’s Dish, Pollock quotes from three critics of the piece. This was particularly evocative:
Mr. Vallicella, in the greatest traditions of Monotheist sophistry, asks, “What does Hitch lose by believing?” and he answers, showing his own nihilistic disdain for truth and faith, “Nothing.” Such is how he sees it. To an existentialist, however, you are your morality and your philosophy; what you think and do IS who you are; in other words, the truth of your existence is everything. To believe now, to run fearfully to a god he has never considered feasible out of some coward’s hope that a last minute plea would postpone oblivion, to lie to himself so grandly, would be for Mr. Hitchens to lose everything.
I wanted to see what Dr. Vallicella himself might have to say about all this, so I visited his blog again. Unfortunately, he doesn’t allow comments (and his trackbacks don’t work), so I have no idea if he realized how thoroughly he’s been fisked. Never mind. I browsed some more of his contributions, and came across another piece of pure nonsense which was crying out for demolition.
In “‘Suicide Bomber’ or ‘Homicide Bomber’?”, Vallicella castigates Bill Keller, the Executive Editor of the New York Times, for using the term “suicide bomber”. This, to Vallicella, is simply wrong:
Keller 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 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 whom we are primarily concerned murder not only themselves but other people as well. As a matter of fact, almost 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. There are two points here. As a matter of conceptual necessity, every suicide bomber is a homicide bomber. And as a matter of contingent fact, every suicide bomber, with the exception of a few solitary individuals, is a homicide bomber.
If anyone is guilty of muddled thinking, it;’s Vallicella. Let’s approach this systematically.
|What the bomber destroys:|
|Does the bomber survive?||Yes||?||?|
There are four possible types of (successful) bombers, as shown in this table. The question is, what labels are useful for the various types? We could distinguish between those who (?merely) destroy property (the first column) and those who kill people (the second). We could call the second column “homicide bombers”, to distinguish them from those who seek to destroy property. Or we could focus on the distinction between those who survive their attack (row one), and those who die (row two). It makes sense to call the second row “suicide bombers”; this adjectival use of “suicide” goes back many years.
It’s important to note that there are examples of bombers in all four quadrants. During the protracted campaign by the Provisional IRA and its splinter groups in Northern Ireland and England, there were many attacks against property (with warnings to try to avoid loss of life) and against people (with no such warning), and in almost all of them the bombers survived. Attacks against property in which the perpetrator dies are less common, but not unknown. And in recent years we’ve seen many examples of attacks that were intended to kill others and in which the bomber intended (or at least expected) to die.
But Vallicella isn’t really interested in this degree of subtlety. He’s “primarily concerned” with bombers who kill other people: those falling into the second column. That’s fine: Western society places a high value on life (well, some life). So all of the bombers that Vallicella cares about are “homicide bombers”. We could drop the word “homicide”, and we still know what we mean. But there is a difference between the Real IRA bomber in Omagh and the bomber from Al-Qaeda in Basra. One walks away unscathed, the other dies. Most people feel that this is a distinction worth observing in our use of language, and which is captured by the term “suicide bomber”.
Of course Vallicella’s parenthetical observation about “suicide being a form of homicide” is irrelevant. Everyday language adapts to meet the needs of real people (and advertisers, and politicians), and is not dependent on theological taxonomies.
Vallicella claims that his arguments are “simple and luminous”. Simple they certainly are – though perhaps “simplistic” would be closer to the mark. Never mind; I’ve seen enough of this “Maverick”.