In What Sense Are Terrorists Cowards?

The conventions of American political rhetoric oblige presidents to denounce terrorist attacks as “cowardly.” Ronald Reagan called the 1983 terrorist bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut “cowardly.” Bill Clinton called the 1998 terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam “cowardly.” So one can hardly single out George W. Bush for calling today’s destruction of the World Trade Center and a portion of the Pentagon, which killed hundreds or perhaps thousands of people, “cowardly.”

Terrorism is inhumane and unforgivable–an offense to morality, patriotism, international law, and almost everything else we hold dear. Put Chatterbox down for favoring swift and terrible punishment for the perpetrators of today’s crime. But is terrorism cowardly? The terrorists who commandeered the planes that leveled the World Trade Center and struck the Pentagon are mass murderers. In committing murder, they also committed suicide. That hardly makes them heroes. But in what sense does it make them cowards?

Perhaps we need to distinguish between moral cowardice and physical cowardice. A physical coward is afraid to risk his life or well-being. Chatterbox is a physical coward. So are most of his friends. A moral coward, one could argue, is afraid to face the burdens of living. Thus anyone who commits suicide is a coward, whether or not he kills others in the bargain. But Chatterbox somehow doubts that George W. Bush equates terrorists with people like Judy Garland and Michael Dorris. Perhaps Bush has a more expansive and political idea about what it means to face life–to work through the system with patience and firm commitment to an ideal. But diplomacy and coalition-building and other political forms of persuasion, worthy though they are, don’t strike Chatterbox as being distinguished very often by heroism.

Perhaps the idea is that it is cowardly to make a sneak attack, especially on a defenseless civilian target, rather than confront an armed enemy face to face. But no one seriously expects Osama Bin Laden to invite the 101st Airborne to fight his terrorist organization on equal terms. And besides, the reason we usually consider it cowardly to make a sneak attack is because the attacker avoids facing the consequences. But the people who participated in today’s terrorist attacks paid the ultimate consequence. Perhaps terrorists are cowardly for not claiming responsibility for their terrorist acts, as seems to be the case here. Often, though, terrorists do claim responsibility and get called cowards anyway. If someone steps forward to claim credit for today’s bombings, it seems unlikely any politician will praise him for bravery.

In truth, notions of “cowardice” and “bravery” are entirely irrelevant when we contemplate the horrors of terrorism. To call a terrorist “cowardly” is to substitute testosterone for morality. Somehow it isn’t enough to abhor an act of terrorism or even to promise to make the terrorist pay dearly. The rules demand that the terrorist be branded a sissy. This is not only a childish reflex, but one that weakens the moral force of the condemnation and thereby dishonors terrorism’s victims. After all, we don’t want brave people to slaughter innocent people any more than we want cowardly people to do so. Still, the public seems to demand that our presidents call terrorists cowards, and our presidents are too–well, cowardly–to deny them.