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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