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Why "Undiebomber" Works

How our latest criminal nickname caught on so quickly. Nicknaming criminals is a long tradition that encompasses Jack the...



How our latest criminal nickname caught on so quickly.


Nicknaming criminals is a long tradition that encompasses Jack the Ripper, Billy the Kid, The Birdman of Alcatraz, The Boston Strangler, Machine Gun Kelly, Scarface, and Public Enemy #1-a nickname given to many criminals, including Al Capone and John Dillinger, long before Chuck D and Flava Flav came along. The mob attracts nicknames like "The Dapper Don" and "Joe Bananas." As I discussed in my very first GOOD column, the FBI gives nicknames to bank robbers, churning out an endless stream of often amusing names, such as "The Crooked Lid Bandit," "The Red Sharpie Bandit," and "The Bad Breath Bandit."

The latest bad guy to make an unwanted name for himself is Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the terrorist who tried to blow up an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight on Christmas Day. Because Abdulmutallab hid the explosives in his underwear, he has been dubbed "The Undiebomber," and the nickname has caught on like VD in a brothel.

"Undiebomber" seems to have been coined soon after the Christmas bombing attempt, possibly by more than one person. It was commonly used by the 28th, when Tunku Varadarajan wrote of "the Nigerian undie bomber" for The Daily Beast. In addition to thousands of anonymous online uses, the term has already appeared in reputable sources, including the blogs of The New York Times ("New terms for suspects in attacks keep cropping up. We've now gone from the shoe-bomber to the undie-bomber." Dec. 31, 2009, Kate Phillips) and Time ("Josh Gerstein has a very good piece, comparing the Obama Administration's reaction to Undiebomber to the Bush Administration's reaction to the shoe-bomber, Richard Reid." Dec. 30, 2009, Joe Klein). Other names, including "crotch bomber" and "jock-strap jihadist" have been suggested, but "Undiebomber" seems destined to be Abdulmutallab's main moniker from now on.

But why has "Undiebomber" been so successful? Since the suicide-murder attempt failed, it doesn't feel wrong to give the guy a humorous title. I doubt this nickname would be embraced with such glee if Abdulmutallab had blown up that airplane-note that The Fort Hood shooter is only "The Fort Hood shooter." We can make fun of Abdulmutallab though, just as we made fun of self-shooting former New York Giant Plaxico Burress, who Stephen Colbert dubbed "the Rosa Parks of people who have shot themselves in the thigh in a nightclub." Abdulmutallab only hurt himself, and people like making fun of stupidity.

If the explosive had been concealed in a glove or shirt, Abdulmutallab might have a boring nickname like Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber." But the similarity of "undie" and "una" allowed for a connection to one of the most famous American terrorists ever: Theodore Kaczynski, who sent mail bombs to universities, drawing attention to his anarchist, technophoic ideas. The "Una" part of his nickname was coined because he attacked universities, and the name was a tremendous fit, since it was later revealed that Kaczynski had taught at Berkeley himself. The phonic link with an established villain's nickname made "Undiebomber" an inevitable derivative.

The belittlement implicit in "Undiebomber" is also a form of revenge for the attempted bombing-and for the future indignities that can be laid at the tightie whities of Abdulmutallab. As many have noted, including William Saletan in Slate, this incident will likely usher in a new era of more invasive airport security. Our nether-regions will be fair game for the TSA in one way or another. Spreading a humiliating nickname that mocks the Undiebomber's failure is the closest any of us will get to reprisal.

Do nicknames like this just trivialize acts of terror? I don't think so. I agree with Varadarajan, who said our collective snark "...is heartening, as it suggests that our society-so humorless and fractious in its squabbles over health care, say, or taxes-has reserves of resilience and verve when it comes to facing down an external foe."

That verve won't keep us safe or straighten out the mess of airline security, but it does make us feel better. Sometimes that's the best we can do against the likes of Captain Explody-pants.