Commentators immediately began asking whether Bin Laden would be made into a martyr by Al Queda. I suspected that they were using the word rather loosely (the English language suffers considerably when new anchors must speak extemporaneously) and so pulled out my Collins dictionary, which has served me well over the years. It gives five definitions (the first three as a noun, the last two as a verb) of martyr, which, if you’ll indulge me, I’ll list in order: 1) a person who suffers death rather than renounce his religious beliefs; 2) a person who suffers greatly or dies for a cause, belief, etc; 3) a person who suffers from poor health, misfortune, etc; 4) to kill as a martyr; 5) to make a martyr of.
The first three definitions do not apply to Bin Laden. He fought to the end; he was not defending his faith, but a willful misinterpretation of it. He was, so far as I know, not a martyr to any particular disease. We look, then, to martyr’s use as a verb. Will Bin Laden’s followers make him a martyr? Is it even open to them to do so when Bin Laden does not meet the basic criteria of martyrdom? One either is or is not at the moment of death a martyr. It’s only when, as in Bin Laden’s case, one’s martyrdom cannot immediately be proven that it becomes necessary to “make a martyr” of someone. During the inquisition, heretics who died for their faith became martyrs the moment they died; they did not need those they left behind to confer martyrdom on them. They conferred it, as it were, on themselves.
Now, Bin Laden’s followers probably think their leader achieved martyrdom at the moment of his death, and that their conferring of martyrdom on him is therefore merely a formality. Thus, for them, there is no inconsistency. This, of course, is as it should be. The word is pliant enough to admit of its own violation.