On Linguistic Responsibility

When your adulthood falls entirely into the era of “suicide” bombers, how do you offer resistance to things you have never experienced an alternative to? I was born in Ukraine in 1980 and, in due course, acquired a USSR passport – shortly before it became an artifact of history. Perhaps that is part of the reason why today, thirty years later, I am a PhD candidate in Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, working within the framework of a project called Memory at War. Its interdisciplinary team examines how memories of trauma – often conflicting ones – are recorded and played out by people and nations. Essentially, we look at how human beings remember and grieve. I am today’s aspiring scholar of memory studies; but in another thirty years, your child or grandchild might be the one plugging keywords into a future version of Google in order to see and analyze what traumatic events mattered regionally, nationally and globally in 2011. As she forms an inner image of the world we once lived in, what would you want her to type into that search field?

In light of today’s lethal attack on innocent civilians in Moscow – yet another tragedy in a long sequence of terror and murder – it is time to reconsider, and take responsibility for, terms we use to describe such things. Just like honor killings have nothing to do with true honor, suicide bombings have nothing to do with real suicide. Suicide (Latin suicidium, from sui caedere, “to kill oneself”) is, as Wikipedia puts it, the act of a human being intentionally causing his or her own death. Merriam-Webster defines it in a similar way: “the act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily”. Key word: own. The relative significance of oneself and one’s own death has very little to do with using one’s body as a weapon of mass destruction. Dozens are dead and hundreds injured. This ain’t no suicide. The subtly pensive term we currently use for such perpetrators is not only erroneous, it also shifts the focus of their actions onto them – when in reality their self-elected demise is only a small part of the pain, suffering and death they routinely inflict.

We cannot take back that pain, suffering and death. Other than prayers (for those of us who pray) and blood donations (for those of us in the vicinity), there is not much we can physically do to help those affected. But we can, and we must, attempt to take linguistic responsibility for how we transcribe it all into our minds, our history, and our memory. Open your bookmarked news page – this week it starts with “a suspected suicide bombing”. How did a killer deserve this high honor of lingual emphasis and empirical preeminence? Any other tool of violence in any other news coverage would be treated mostly in the narrow context of whether or not it has been found, if at all. For those of us who have never known a world without “suicide” bombers, it is essential to be able at least to conjure one up. And in any act of imagination, decisive focal points, both conscious and sub-conscious, serve as pillars to support and frame it. Yet the public vision today remains painfully mis-focused.

Call it murder, journalists. It is homicide by corpus, so call it what it is. There is power in words and in defining things through names; use it. Use it the next time you talk, write or think. As long as we allow assassins to remain “suicide” bombers, we formulate and promote a half-conscious framework of martyrdom with dysfunctional focus points. We can do better than that. We are carriers of the mightiest weapon of all – language.

Let it fire.



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