What’s wrong with the word ‘bomber’?

It’s ages since I’ve read one of these op-ed pieces. So that’s why I’ve not been able to think of much to blog about of late.

Anyway, via Matt T I see this piece by Nick Cohen:

A misguided obsession with objective reporting is undermining the BBC’s credibility as a news organisation

Is it just me or does that sentence make absolutely no sense whatsoever? Surely being obsessed with objective reporting is a good thing for a news organisation to be? I don’t know — some people think the BBC is too biased. Now some people think it’s too objective! Whatever next?! (Apologies to Backword Dave, from whom I basically stole the idea of taking the piss out of that strapline.)

(Update: Doh! Hadn’t realised that he’d actually done a proper blog post about it and everything (via).)

Having read the article, I think it’s probably safe to assume that it’s just a mistake by a sub-editor or something. Which is quite ironic, considering it appears underneath the headline, “Stop castrating the language”.

The whole article is really confusing though. Cohen starts out by saying that the BBC’s cautious policy on the word ‘terrorist’ is “reasonable”. Immediately after that he goes on to criticise the BBC for, in his view, not using the word enough.

While we’re on the issue, I don’t really understand all these people who complain about the BBC’s policy on the word. Whilst nobody can ever quite seem to agree on what constitutes a terrorist and what doesn’t, the use of the word ‘bomber’ (not a problem for the BBC, as far as I know) is surely every bit as explicit as, and less ambiguous than, the use of the word ‘terrorist’?

Cohen goes on to say:

‘Bomber’, ‘attacker’ and ‘gunman’ allow no distinction between fighters who assault military targets and fighters who assault civilian targets.

Well, no. But I think it’s obvious that if it is reported that four bombs go off on public transport it’s pretty safe to assume that the targets weren’t military ones.

And it’s hardly as though you could confuse the word ‘insurgent’ with the phrase ‘armed wing of the Liberal Democrats’, is it? Oh wait a minute. It seems as though you could if you were Nick Cohen.


  1. Shuggy tells appeasers to get off their ******* knees. Also on the subject of terrorism, the Honourable Fiend doesn’t think Tony is doing a very good job protecting our society. Yet more on terrorism as doctorvee shines a spotlight on the Guardian shining a spotlight on the BBC. Say what? Taking a break from terrorism, Ken MacLeod says that “If we don’t blog about trivia then the terrorists have won.” Indeed.

  2. Oh dear. That’s not clever.

    And consider this sentence:
    The deliberate targeting of civilians is a crime against humanity, full stop.
    So, are any of the “bombers of Dresden” or the “bombers of Hiroshima” still alive? They must also be “terrorists” who have committed crimes against humanity. Full stop.

  3. […] Terrorism Defined This could be considered another slice of half-baked philosophy pie except I actually do have a reasonable idea what I’m talking about here (yes, for a change). Without wishing to sound like an arse, I have studied terrorism at University so I do know a fair bit about it (not that I’m claiming to be an expert mind you). Now that I’ve alienated you with my feeble attempts at intellectual snobbery, lets get on with it.Last week I wrote about the reaction to the BBC’s decision not to use the word terrorist. Doctorvee spotted an amusingly straplined Nick Cohen article on the subject. Now the point I made is that terrorism is actually very difficult to define. I’d be very surprised if Pollard didn’t know this when he wrote: But terrorism is not a value judgement. It is recognised as a crime against humanity under international law. Professor Norman Geras defines it as “the deliberate targeting of civilians with a view to killing and maiming them and if possible in large numbers”.I’m afraid he’s being disingenuous (is about the kindest thing I can think to write here). Now I don’t really want to make the fellow look foolish but lets start with the definition he gives. Terrorism is “the deliberate targeting of civilians with a view to killing and maiming them and if possible in large numbers”. It seems reasonable enough. So was the bombing of Hiroshima a terrorist attack? Was it a crime against humanity? I’d argue that it could be considered the former and it’s certainly the latter. Lots of people will agree, but lots of people will disagree too. They might argue that it saved many more lives than were lost, for example. We have to agree that it was the “deliberate targeting of civilians with a view to killing and maiming them and if possible in large numbers” because that is undeniably what it was. But do we agree that it was terrorism? No, because it’s a value judgement. So this definition can be discarded. For many people, it’s possible for an action to fullful the criteria but not qualify as a terrorist act.So, lets look at some other definitions.The Compact Oxford English Dictionary keeps it short (as you’d expect).Terrorist:a person who uses violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.Derivatives: Terrorism.Well, that one is obviously rubbish. Every soldier who ever fought a war is guilty of that. Every PM or President who ever ordered war is guilty of that. Discard. Next.The Cambridge Dictionary of American English.violent action for political purposesEvery war ever. Discard. Next.Encyclopedia Britannica.Systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective.The US carpet bombing of Hanoi, was that terrorism? What about Dresden? Value judgement. Discard. Next.Dictionary.comThe unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.Good effort. “Unlawful force” makes this more precise. So, was the war in Iraq legal? I, and many other people, say no, our great leader says yes. If it wasn’t legal the invasion of Iraq would qualify under this definition. Smells like another value judgement to me. Discard. Next.Oh, this is futile. I’ve got an idea. Why don’t I check to see what Wikipedia has to say. It’s created democratically so it should have the most refined definition.Wikipedia.The word “terrorism” is controversial and has many definitions, none of which are universally accepted.Right. So that’s pretty much exactly what I’ve been saying then (although I see the article is disputed, must be a disagreement over value judgements). You see why I find it very difficult to understand why Pollard says “But terrorism is not a value judgement”. If there was one definition of terrorism we could all agree on then this might be true. As it is, he’s peddling an untruth to further his own agenda. If you really want to inform people about terrorism the first thing you should do is explain how difficult it is to define.Just to be absolutely clear, my point is not whether the London bombers can be called terrorists. I’d say the bombers can be called terrorists by almost any definition you care to come up with. The point is that a word with no clearly agreed definition isn’t actually a very useful word. It might be a fantastic word for poetry but it’s not that useful for reporting the news. The BBC prefers to use the word bomber because it does have a clearly agreed definition.If you disagree with me, here’s a little challenge. Provide a definition of terrorism which isn’t controversial. My comments are open for sensible debate . I’d advise against employing the standard “non-state actors” gambit though. It opens up the possibilty that a suicide bomber directly employed by a state cannot, by definition, be a terrorist. That surely wouldn’t be right, would it?(I appear to have accidentally taken handfull of pompous pills today. Sorry, but I can’t think of a better way to phrase that last paragraph. I’m actually quite modest once you get to know me, it’s true, honestly it is…)UpdateTim Ireland takes a wider view of the Pollard article and describes what he sees. Definitely worth reading.Edit: Spelling, see comment. Doh… […]