In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, Bill Maher got himself into a great deal of hot water by opining that terrorists who flew planes into buildings might be called a great many things but “cowards” shouldn’t be one of them.
We might well disagree with Maher, thinking about a definition of cowardice that doesn’t turn entirely on someone’s actions. In that case, we could claim that even someone who risks or gives up his life for a cause is still a coward insofar as his tactics are cowardly or his targets suggest cowardice. Someone who attacks the weak or helpless, for example, very well might be deemed a coward even if he does something that, in another situation, might seem courageous.
All of this came to mind when I watched the coverage of the Boston bombings a couple of weeks ago and when I got the following question from a student:
I’m interested in the fact that terrorists and criminals are consistently referred to as “cowards.” Obviously, the actions of such people are the opposite of heroic, but does this mean these people are not courageous?
The crucial difference between the 9/11 terrorists and the Tsarnaevs is that there wasn’t anything at all courageous to point to in Boston in the way that Maher could point to the courage of the 9/11 terrorists who gave up their own lives in the pursuit of their murderous ideology.
In Boston, the bombers indiscriminately attacked people who were helpless and unaware, and they did so in a way that, at least in the moment, presented no risk to themselves. They set down explosive devices on a sidewalk full of innocent people and they walked away from them.
There’s no doubt that this is cowardice.
That said, I think it’s fairly straightforward to make the argument that terrorism is always cowardly, even if particular terrorists take actions that might appear courageous under different circumstances. The circumstances matter a whole lot.
For a very interesting discussion of courage in political theory, I highly recommend Richard Avramenko’s book Courage: The Politics of Life and Limb.
T-Shirt sold in NYC right after 1993 terrorist attack
Four Southern California men have been charged with plotting to kill Americans overseas and in the United States by joining al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan, federal officials said Monday.
The defendants were arrested for plotting to bomb government facilities and public places after federal authorities uncovered their plans to engage in “violent jihad,” FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said.
Then-CNN (now ABC News) correspondent Christiane Amanpour correctly predicted that Osama bin Laden was hiding in a villa inside Pakistan in an October 2008 taping of the HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher.” [HBO]