I’m writing today about a few things I would have written about last year if I’d had somewhere to write.
Shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center, several people, including President Bush, called the perpetrators “cowards.” A mini-debate erupted over whether that term was appropriate. It’s a pointless argument. Naturally, I have an opinion.
Several folks to disagreed on the grounds that the hijackers clearly put their lives at risk (sacrificing them, in fact) to accomplish their goal. Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher got himself in a lot of trouble for saying
“We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly.” There’s a hint of a good point here: If the terrorists were cowards for attacking people who can’t fight back, then so are we when we use our advanced weaponry. But that’s not right at all. In wartime, attacking your enemy in such a way that they can’t attack you isn’t cowardice, it’s good tactics. Clearly,
“attacking people who can’t fight back” is a poor definition of cowardice.
President Bush’s definition of cowardice might be different, based on what he said here:
Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward. Make no mistake: the U.S. will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.
Here, Bush seems to be calling the person who planned the attack, now known to be Osama bin Laden, a coward. Perhaps this is because he remains “faceless,” too scared to take responsibility for his acts. This a much better definition of cowardice, and might well apply. Of course, when you attack a superpower, not taking responsibility may also be a sign of wisdom.
A few years ago in Yemen, a couple of men linked to Al Queda piloted a small boat up to the USS Cole and set off a bomb, blowing a hole in the hull and killing 17 sailors. It wasn’t long before people, including President Clinton, called them “cowards.” I thought this was stupid and dangerous. These guys didn’t blow up some bar in a naval port, they attacked an armed and deployed American warship. That’s not a cowardly act. These guys were bold, and they were dedicated, and they were our enemies. There were more of them out there, and calling them cowards was just a way to stick our heads in the sand. It was a dangerous delusion.
For whatever it’s worth, I’ve always thought of cowardice as a personal failing. I once read an account by a cop describing an entry into an apartment during a criminal investigation. One of the occupants became belligerent and attacked him, at which point his partner ran away. Other cops arriving on the scene saw him running, but assumed he was chasing someone. That’s a coward. It’s not that he ran, it’s that he let down his partner. This definition doesn’t really tell us a lot about the terrorists of 9/11. That’s kind of my point: Whether the terrorists were cowardly is not important.
So, does this mean I think some of the terrorists have been brave? Yes, but so what? I don’t think our policy toward them should depend on their personal virtues or lack thereof. The German military during World War II was filled with bold and dedicated people, and we fought them to a total victory. That some of our enemy are courageous doesn’t make them any less our enemy. That some murderers are bold doesn’t make them any less murders.