Terror and cowardice

An expert on courage explains why suicide hijackers are not heroic and why those who try too hard to understand them are craven.

Published October 11, 2001 6:54PM (EDT)

Americans have been talking a great deal about cowardice and courage since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. At Salon, we know from our conversation last year with William Ian Miller, author of "The Mystery of Courage," that the topic is far more complex and elusive that it may at first seem. Is it brave -- if also lunatic and inhuman -- to deliberately obliterate your own life in an assault when that assault is on unarmed civilians? Is there courage in shooting guided missiles at targets many miles away? Does it take guts merely to ask such questions, especially on national television? We called up Miller at Harvard University, where he is teaching as a visiting professor from the University of Michigan, to get his opinion.

One of the first things government officials, including the president, had to say about the terrorists who struck the U.S. on Sept. 11 was that they were cowards. That's also one of the first statements to be challenged in the media, by Susan Sontag in the New Yorker, by Timothy Noah on Slate and by Bill Maher on his show, "Politically Incorrect." In turn, those challenges seemed to really touch a nerve, provoking a lot of outrage. That certainly affirms your idea that courage is a virtue that's hard to define, but also a subject that stirs up the most powerful feelings.

Let's look at the question of the cowardice or courage of the hijackers. That's complicated. If in fact it is easy to recruit young Muslim males who are willing to die without any fear, if in fact you're getting high rates of people volunteering for suicide missions, then it might be too easy for them to do it, and you have to ask is this really courage. If in fact they believe, absolutely, with no discount, that they are going to go to heaven instantaneously with no doubts about it, and they're having no trouble recruiting people to do that, then I start to wonder if it's not a virtue anymore. Then we pass into the world of fanaticism.

If in fact it's hard and even these guys have a hard time finding people willing to raise their hand to carry out that kind of mission, then you have to give them credit for being willing to give up their lives for what they believe in. The question is whether it comes easy for them or hard for them and we don't know that. We always think someone is more courageous for overcoming their doubts to do something, rather than for having none. If I have no doubts that I'm going to die a glorious death and go to heaven and thousands of people believe that and are willing to do that, then courage becomes too cheap. Somewhere along the line we make a distinction between what we call courage and what we call insanity.

For courage to be a virtue, it can't be easy, and if it becomes too easy for a culture to deliver people willing to die, then we'll start to think that the culture has things backward. I mean: Death is better than life? No.

I have to confess, "coward" took me by surprise. The word that came to me first was "monster." What is it about the word "coward" that makes it one of the first insults people throw at their enemies?

We always have a hard time figuring out what to call our enemies. If they're enemies and we hate them, we want to call them bad names, and "coward" is one of the worst things you can call anyone, especially someone who fancies he's not. Part of it is that it's perfectly understandable to call someone a coward for taking out people who could never have harmed him in any way, shape or manner. At the same time, you don't want to go too far in calling your enemies cowards because then you get no credit for defeating them. How hard is it to go kill a coward?

These guys will probably make formidable opponents because they don't look like they're afraid to die. You can call their tactics inhuman or atrocious, you can say their leaders have their moral universe ass-backwards, but you want to be careful of demoting your enemy too much because then it takes away from your own virtue in defeating them.

I suppose it might also reassure a population that's been terrorized to hear its leader call the enemy cowards, though.

We want to call them cowards because of who they decided was a reasonable target. "Cowardly" might not be the right word, but it captures the moral horror we feel at who they decided to attack. It's unsoldierly to go after workers in an office building.

Because those people have no capacity to fight back.

They are not going to be a source of danger to you ever. So in that light, the charge of cowardice does make sense.

Especially if you consider that the attacker might be more afraid of being thwarted in his mission than he is of actually dying. Someone who could fight back and derail the plot -- the way the passengers of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania did -- might prevent the guy from getting full honors in heaven.

Suppose we have somebody who straps himself with explosives and walks into a nursery school full of 3- and 4-year-old kids and blows them up because he thinks they might become some kind of future enemy. He's willing to die, but we don't want to classify anything he does with any word connected to a virtue. Anything you want to call him seems fair game to me. I think it was fair game for Bush to call those guys cowards. Show me someone who goes into a bar and challenges a bunch of big guys to a fight and then OK.

The willingness for them to die just seems to be insufficient grounds for calling them courageous unless a whole bunch of particulars apply -- the victim has to be appropriate, the cause has to be reasonably appropriate -- to name it courage. Then again, we don't want to say that some German soldier in World War II who was fighting to the bitter end wasn't courageous. He was. He was fighting for an appallingly bad regime but he's still protecting his buddies and following orders. I don't think that's not courage on his part, but he's still within the rules, playing the soldier game.

When you were researching your book on the history of courage, did you find anything that now strikes you as a precedent for this kind of attack?

There are these attackers, commonly associated with the Huns, Turks, the Mongols ...

We're talking about Central Asia here, I see.

That's why I'm bringing it up. They were horse people and famous for leveling pretty much every human being in their sight -- women, children, old men, everything. They rode through and wiped them out. They'd come through every few years, a different tribe or different ethnic group each time, but one of the things they were systematically good at was butchering everyone. The one thing they also didn't like to do was to ever stand still and have a pitched battle. If they were resisted, they hung back and shot arrows. But usually they were just so successful at terrorizing that the population would flee and when they fled these guys would just hack them unmercifully to bits, slaughter them all.

Cruel they were, ruthless they were, hard they were. Were they courageous? If they wouldn't ever stand and fight, but always hung back if they were resisted?

Would berserkers fall into this category?

No, that's different. They'd work themselves into a state where they'd feel no fear. Not just everyone was a berserk; they were rare. And they were often recruited because they were psychotic, too, or because they could get themselves into a psychotic state. Although we might think that about certain kinds of belief systems.

So the presence of madness can cancel out the possibility of courage?

We should be clear that one of the ways we get ourselves to do things we're scared of doing is to get ourselves all hepped up. We do want to get ourselves into a zone. It's a standard technique for getting football players as well as soldiers riled up. Part of facing danger is getting the fear out any way you can, but some means are fairer than others. If you're never aware of a reason to be afraid, or you actively want to die, we tend to discount the virtue of that. But we don't count it against someone who's scared out of their wits and is trying to whistle a happy tune or takes a few drinks or needs to scream a rebel yell before a charge -- sure, of course they've got to do that.

The thing that got Bill Maher and Susan Sontag into hot water was not just questioning the cowardice of the hijackers, but also questioning the courage of the U.S. in that we use cruise missiles and other devices against people who can't possible fight back against them.

Let me defend the people who are on the ships firing these things. From time immemorial soldiers have debated who has more courage or less of it. It's a standard theme of military memoirs that nobody has it quite as bad as the guys on the sharp end -- right on the ground, facing enemy fire. Or, in some cases, people like bomber pilots who have to fly into absolutely lethal anti-aircraft fire. Is there any doubt that that makes great demands on a capacity for courage? The people who have to be on the sharp end look a little askance at the people further behind the lines. The people who are 1,000 yards back feel that they're risking a lot more than people 2,000 yards back.

But I'd like to say that anyone who's in the service is being a lot more courageous than anyone who isn't willing to be in the service. They're at least willing to expose themselves to risk. The people who were on the USS Cole weren't expecting to be hit, but they at least were in a position where that could happen to them. When you compare that to the rest of the population who won't even get on an airplane now or who won't go to the ballgame, I'm not going to say a bad thing about those soldiers firing those missiles. They're exposing themselves to much greater risk than the person back home in the suburbs blaming them for not having any courage. I just don't see where the moral authority of Mr. Maher or Susan Sontag is, to blame those people who are simply assigned a task in part of a larger military enterprise.

What about on a more national level -- not the people who are following orders, but the nation as a whole, or its leadership?

There's more than one way to look at courage. It takes courage to do some pretty nasty things sometimes. War is unpleasant business. It means shooting at people. It means defending yourself too. And defending yourself means that sometimes you have to offend. So what are we going to do? Say, "Well, OK, it takes no courage for me to shoot at someone 10,000 miles away, so I'll wait till they kill my kids first." Come on, let's get real!

I suppose it's only logical, if you're a commander, that you'll try to inflict as many casualties on the enemy as you can without sustaining any of your own.

It turns out we made a big mistake with the Gulf War, where we won the battle but it now looks like we lost the war. We got moral scruples at exactly the wrong time.

About what?

About eliminating the Iraqi military presence. It was like a turkey shoot they said. There's something very admirable about the fact that we couldn't just wipe them out. At the same point, that failure on our part to finish the business was looked at as weakness and the end result of that weakness is that more Americans die and more Muslims die than would have died if we'd just finished it then. In other words, it takes courage not just to stand and be shot at, but to shoot.

You're saying that not only would we have removed a potential threat, but we would also have communicated something to other parties.

We would have gained the advantage of having people understand that we were willing to do what it takes to defend ourselves. It's ugly business. I'm not saying, "Rah, rah, rah! Go kill tons of Iraqis!" but at some point I feel that more people are going to wind up dying because we didn't do it. There's all kinds of unfairnesses in war. That's what it is: massive unfairness. What are you going to do, say, "We're Western. We believe in the dignity of each individual life," and as a result we're not going to do what it takes to protect ourselves? It's stark, raving mad. First we have to secure our own life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

At the time we didn't necessarily think of it as protecting ourselves. When it came to life and limb, we thought of ourselves as being pretty secure. Wasn't the falsity of that sense of security the thing the Sept. 11 attacks were meant to communicate to us?

There were a lot of people who asked at the time [of the Gulf War] what was the point of what we were doing if we're going to call it off before we finished. Unless the point was just to get that oil back.

Maybe that's all it was.

Maybe it was.

What about the argument that further military action would simply have further inflamed militant groups in the Middle East?

I think anti-American sentiment will be there no matter what. At least they would have respected us. You see, they have contempt for us.

Do you base that on examples from past conflicts that you studied while working on your courage book?

You can just draw on your day-to-day experience of when you have respect for your foe and when you basically believe your foe will never do what it takes, that you never have to fear him. We've gotten to the point where we're thought of as objects of contempt by tough, warrior-minded people -- like certain Islamic fundamentalists, for example. We're not willing for even one troop to die before we'll leave Somalia. We aren't willing to die anymore, for anything. And when they sense that, they have nothing but contempt for us and will not believe any threats we make. I take it as the decline of our virtue that we can somehow see 6,000 of our citizens blown up and start to make excuses for the people who blew us up instead of first defending ourselves, and getting them back so they don't do it again. I don't want to have too much understanding for the guy who rapes my daughter.

But there is something to be said for not lashing out unthinkingly in a way that makes the situation even worse.

I think that sometimes we have to not be so rational. Sometimes it's more important for moral purposes to punch back and not worry about whether we're making more of a mess.

You're contradicting yourself. You're saying now that sometimes for moral purposes it's right to act without considering the consequences, but when we made a moral decision not to take out the Iraqi military at the end of the Gulf War without considering the consequences, you disapprove.

So, I mix utilitarianism with my vengefulness! Actually, my utilitarianism was in service of my vengefulness in that Gulf War example.

The constant is your belief in vengeance. Which probably explains why you started out your academic career studying Icelandic sagas.

I actually think letting someone know that you are not to be messed with is a very good thing to do for rational reasons. And that's what revenge is. When you take revenge it means "Don't do this because I will respond." Revenge is rational to that extent.

It is, but it's also tricky because you can wind up in a vendetta situation where people are killing each other back and forth until there's nothing but blood on the ground.

None of these systems are perfect. I do think that there's a certain kind of cowardice that masquerades as high moral principle. I don't want to say sympathy and fellow feeling is not a good thing. It is -- I'm loaded with it myself. But sometimes, it's the veneer we put on cowardice. We feel that if we understand the pain of the other, then we should sit back and cower and cringe and let them beat us to a pulp. That looks like masochism and cravenness to me. I'm not saying we should blunder ahead and not plan in light of things like, say, the destabilization of Pakistan, but to do nothing because you fear something else might go wrong is to be cowardly. What does the cowardly mind do, if not to always find reasons for running? And they're always good reasons -- you'll live for one minute longer. You'll save your butt, it won't be as costly, my son won't have to go fight.

When your first book came out, we talked about how few opportunities there are to show courage anymore. I couldn't help thinking of that when reading a few stories since the attack in which some typical 19-year-olds were asked if they were ready to fight in this new war against terrorism, and quite a few of them seemed pretty convinced that it's not something they should be asked to do.

I'm hoping that amid this horror that we will start to understand -- it sounds like platitudes, I'm even embarrassed saying this, but I'm going to say it: It means that we actually have to give something as well as take from the polity. That we might actually have to give something, and not just money. It might mean that we have to give some years of our lives or run risks that our lives might be shortened. We might actually have to give something to sustain the very wonderful life we have here.

I was struck recently when I wrote a story about Americans' lack of interest in foreign policy, and a couple of readers wrote back very angry that they might be expected to be responsible for what their government is doing. Their attitude is that they pay taxes so that they shouldn't ever have to think about it. That was strange -- unclear on the concept of citizenship.

It's not just a club that you pay dues to and then you're taken care of. You have to be a participant. Especially in a democracy. Maybe we should reinstitute the draft. Maybe we should all have to put a couple of years of our lives at the service of the polity. We can't just ask poor people to face bullets or to be called cowards for sitting on a ship firing a cruise missile.

Of course, in my old age, when I don't have to fight, I've become a hawk. When I was young, I ran like crazy. Of course, I'm aware of how appalling that is. It's not like I'm not aware

It's pretty ironic that someone like Bill Maher congratulates himself on having the courage to be "politically incorrect" but once he offends someone who's actually in a position to hurt him -- his sponsors, for example -- his courage runs out pretty quick and he apologizes.

It didn't take great courage for him to make that remark. He figures he can get away with saying anything he wants. Turns out, oh my God, he got punched back. I assume he's just groveling like crazy now.

It's piquant because there's such a pose of daring in that program.

Of course, and it's just a pose. It's on TV; it's got good ratings, it's good business. There's no daring in that. It's pure practical, rational calculation.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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