Joho the Blog » Bush and the Cowardly Terrorists

Bush and the Cowardly Terrorists

President Bush’s first official response to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto was to call it a “cowardly” act. Despicable, horrible, anti-democratic, ungodly, of course…for this particular murder we could exhaust the vocabulary of condemnation. But of all the possible negative adjectives, “cowardly,” seems one of the least appropriate. Why did Bush resort to that particular term of opprobrium? And what does it say about how we’re framing the “war on terror”?

Bush routinely characterizes terrorist acts as cowardly. In October, 2000, Bush called the attack on a US destroyer in Yemen cowardly. On September 12, 2001, he called the attacks the day before cowardly. He called the 2002 Bali explosion cowardly. He (through the State Dept.) called the 2003 Mumbai bombings cowardly. In 2004, the White House called the murder of Iraqi Governing Council Chairman Izzadine Salim cowardly. Bush called the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samara in 2006 cowardly. Hell, his father called the Pan Am bombing of 1988 cowardly,. and as vice president, in 1983 he called those behind the Lebanese bombing cowards.

But, if cowards are those who shirk their duty out of fear for their own safety, terrorists who blow themselves up are not cowards: They do their (perceived) duty without regard to their personal safety, as everyone from Bill Maher to Peter Preston of The Guardian have pointed out. Even if we believe that they do so because they think they’re going to be rewarded in the afterlife, by that logic we would have to call even the bravest faithful Christian soldier a coward, too. And that clearly wouldn’t be right. You don’t have to be soft on terrorism to think that “coward” is just the wrong term here.

It makes a little more sense when Bush is talking about the terrorist leaders, not the actual suicide bombers. For example, Osama Bin Laden “assures [his followers] that . . . this is the road to paradise — though he never offers to go along for the ride,” Bush said in October, 2005. Of course, Bush himself isn’t at the front of the troops in Afghanistan, and when Bush dared the enemy to “bring it on,” he was safely away from where it might be brought. (Osama Bin Laden, on the other hand, has led soldiers in combat.)

So, why hurl the “coward” term at terrorists — leaders and followers — when there are so many other terms they deserve?

Part of it is simple name-calling: We don’t want suicidal terrorism to appear glamorous so we say it’s cowardly. Spin.

And Bush’s special psychology is undoubtedly at work. During the Vietnam war, Bush failed at the same military role in which his father had performed heroically. Characterizing others as cowards perhaps helps Bush Jr. strut past his own weakness. This may be part of Bush’s disdain of “nuance,” which itself may part of a nature that is terrified by temptation and the lure of shadows. But since Bush is not the only one to think of terrorists as cowards — for example, Bill Clinton called the terrorist attack in Yemen cowardly — more is at play than personal psychology.

The best I can figure, Bush and the other leaders who routinely refer to terrorists as cowards are working from a schoolyard metaphor. Terrorists are the kids who whack you on the back of the head and run away instead of putting up their dukes and fighting. They fight the way they do because they lack the courage to stand their ground.

But this is a mistake. Terrorists don’t use terrorism because they’re cowards. They use it because it’s a relatively effective technique for fighting military powers that have overwhelming conventional strength. To fight terrorism, we need to be clear-headed about it, not indulge in a nostalgia that wishes the terrorists would just come out and fight like men because we know how to beat them on yesterday’s battlefield.

Then there’s the plain old machismo of it. Both sides in this struggle have accused the other of being girly-men. Bush in 2005 said that Zarqawi has called Americans “the most cowardly of God’s creatures.” In April 2006, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir in a tape called Bush a coward. How much of our blood has been spent proving America’s bravery…to a bunch of people we keep saying are cowards?

“Coward” is just a word, but there are consequences to our insistence on applying it to people who are out to murder us. It misjudges their motives and worldview, which can lead to us misjudging their intentions and plans. Worse, in a single word it presents our own worldview in which the old frame is still operative: We are fighting a war, wars are fought by armies, armies fight in the open, and soldiers who don’t are cowards. The language of cowardice is thus part of the language of war that is deeply — and perhaps disastrously — inappropriate for the deadly struggle in which we are engaged.

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11 Responses to “Bush and the Cowardly Terrorists”

  1. Very well stated. Words and how we use them are still important. Insisting that these are acts of cowardice does not advance the chances of peace and tells Americans (and the World) that our leaders misunderstand the nature of the battle.

  2. Thatcher was also very fond of calling IRA activity “cowardly” – wasn’t particularly effective in that conflict either…

  3. Perhaps he should resort to other ineffective name calling just to break the pattern. If he were to call them big jerks, or losers it would at least be a change from the norm. I mean really, what do you expect from this guy? Name calling just doesn’t work, it never did.

  4. In September, 2001 David Whited related Bill Cosby’s old stand-up bit about the Redcoats vs. the Continental Army. I’m quite sure I don’t agree with Whited’s conclusions, but the joke is a classic and it reminds me of Bush’s concern with the unfair tactics of the terrorists:

    “General Cornwallis of the British, this is General Washington of the Continental Army.”

    “General Washington of the Continental Army, this is General Cornwallis of the British.”

    “If you’d shake hands, gentlemen.”

    “O.K., British call the toss.”

    “British called heads, it is tails.”

    “General Washington, what are you gonna do?”

    “General Washington says his troops will dress however they wish, in any color, in buckskins and coonskin caps, and hide behind the rocks and trees and shoot out at random.”

    “British, you will all wear bright red, all shoot at the same time, and march forward in a straight line.”

  5. It would seem that a healthy respect and understanding of your opponent, his methods and goals, is needed to effectively engage him. Demonizing him really doesn’t have much long term upside — when you beat him you have victory over an inferior. If you lose …

    As to the specific term “cowards” bear in mind that “pirates” has been appropriated to discourage fulling realizing the benefits of digital technology. Political campaigns use a full spectrum of negative appellation but, interestingly, “coward” rarely appears here. It is available for foreign policy purposes.

  6. I have seen litle to suggest that Bush has any real areas of expertise. But he knows cowardly. He also knows terrorism.

  7. Conventionally, in English, cowardice is about both warrior and target. So, for example, detonating an explosive vest in a nursery is not considered “bravery” because, while the actor expects to die, he has also chosen to attack infants. Attacking infants is considered cowardly, whether or not their parents have “overwhelming conventional strength.”

    There is certainly space between “you are acting from motives of cowardice” and “you are committing cowardly acts.” The words “cowardice” and “coward” are used for both, perhaps unfortunately. If that makes people misunderstand the situation, that’s too bad. It would certainly be wrong for anyone to conclude that because terrorists* blow up innocents, they are “sissies.”

    I don’t think anyone thinks that, but you are free to imagine those who listen to Bush are under this delusion. It wouldn’t be wrong, however, to deny that people who do these acts are transgressing widespread cultural norms against attacking the defenseless. Contra the comment above, to attempt to delegitimize someone’s chosen form of attack is not the same thing as “demonizing” them or failing to understand them. You can understand a terrorist without denying that terrorism is cowardly.

    I haven’t had time to do a thorough search, but I think you can dig up quite a few examples of this usage. You can start with Google Book Search on “cowardly act” and “Pearl harbor.” ( http://books.google.com/books?q=%22cowardly+attack%22+%22pearl+harbor%22&btnG=Search+Books ) Athough he didn’t use the word in his Pearl Harbor address, Roosevelt, did speak of the attack as a “dastardly,” which the (HMCO) dictionary defines as “Cowardly and malicious.” Roosevelt was characterizing the circumstances of the attack, not whether the Japanese pilots were personally chickenhearted.

    *The situation in Iraq is complicated by the fact that “terrorist” is applied to some activities which, being aimed at troops, wouldn’t normally fall under the term. This is partially slander and lazy language and partially about substantial crossover between people and groups who do this and those who engaged in more traditional terrorist activities, mostly against Shiites.

  8. “After 9/11, America stood proud, wounded but determined and united. A cowardly attack on innocent civilians brought us an unprecedented level of cooperation and understanding around the world.”

    Jimmy Carter, 2004 Democratic National Convention Address ( http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/convention2004/jimmycarter2004dnc.htm )

  9. Bush and the Cowardly Terrorists might be excellent controversial issue after you did fabulously; thanks for everything!

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  11. In my eyes Bush himself acts even more cowardly! He doesn´t go and kill innocent civilians but tell innocent civillians to go and kill innocent civilians!

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