Yes, they are cowards

Every couch potato in America would off himself instantly and painlessly if he thought he'd wake up in a Budweiser commercial on the other side.

Published October 18, 2001 11:50PM (EDT)

Much to the delight, I'm sure, of semioticians everywhere, the American media's response to the Sept. 11 disaster is devolving, more or less, into a war of words. Stanley Fish's recent New York Times op-ed, "Condemnation Without Absolutes," is perhaps the best single example of this. Any sensible person who has read it readily admits that it is time -- actually, well beyond time -- that we, the doltish absolutists of the lollipop guild, clarified our terms. And, while we're at it, a couple of darling dean Fish's terms as well.

1) Cowardly

Here is Fish: "Bill Maher, Dinesh D'Souza and Susan Sontag have gotten into trouble by pointing out that 'cowardly' is not the word to describe men who sacrifice themselves for a cause they believe in."

Indeed, it's true that during the last five weeks much has been made of one of President Bush's early remarks about the catastrophe. "Today," he said in his first address to the nation on the subject, "America was attacked by a faceless coward."

Now Fish, like so many of his fashionably iconoclastic cohorts in academe and elsewhere, along with Maher, D'Souza and Sontag, insists that "coward" is the wrong word here.

He's mistaken.

First of all, his backhanded definition of what cowardice is NOT (which is really just a wormy way of saying that the terrorists were brave) is flimsy. A person who kills himself for a cause, while he may not be a coward, is certainly not brave or in any way laudable either. He's a nut. No sane person, or truly self-sacrificing person, just outright kills himself for a cause. He may fight for it. He may even fight for it like the soldiers who stormed the beaches in Normandy, with the knowledge that he is likely to die. But living, not dying, is the goal, and this wish to live, as opposed to the wish to die, is what makes putting himself in harm's way so hard and so frightening. He doesn't want to do it, and therein lies the sacrifice. People who want to die, or who believe they'll be met by a pack of willing virgins in paradise if they die in service of their ideal, have resigned themselves and their will to live either to despair or fanaticism, both of which have the effect of numbing the lamb into an automaton. Death isn't frightening when you're too hypnotized or narcotized to know what's happening, or care.

What's more, no truly brave person ever submits himself to death for a reward. Where's the sacrifice in that? Every couch potato in America would off himself instantly and painlessly -- which is in itself no small enticement to commit suicide -- if he thought he'd wake up in a Budweiser commercial on the other side. No suffering, and a chance to finally get your rocks off for eternity with no mullah lurking in the closet? Hell, I'd do it, too. Mass murder/suicide under these mercenary circumstances is cowardice, as well as lack of sincere conviction, defined.

But most importantly, and this is a point Sontag and Fish and others have willfully overlooked, these hijackers were cowards not so much because of what they did, but because of how they did it -- that is, anonymously. As Bush so appositely put it, they were cowards because they were "faceless." A coward is someone who won't stand up to a fight, and that is exactly what al-Qaida won't do. It's the warfare equivalent of a hit and run. Blow up thousands of unsuspecting noncombatants, who are utterly unable to defend themselves, and then take off for la-la land, or deny all responsibility, and then hide in a cave, letting your fellow faithful die on your behalf, because you're too much of a coward to make an appearance.

If Osama bin Laden's cause is so just, and he's so brave, then why doesn't he stand up and claim the carnage? Why doesn't he lead his armies into a bona fide battle, instead of ranting by videotape, refusing, exactly like Hitler, to emerge from his bunker, and insuring thereby that innocent Afghans will die? It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that if Osama bin Laden were truly a martyr dying for a cause, he'd have come out of hiding to save his people. Had he done so, no bombs would have fallen on them. But instead, he prefers to officiate from afar a war of attrition that inflicts death randomly, and to no ultimate avail.

And the fact that there is no avail, no actual cause except petty revenge and gross nihilism behind al-Qaida's murders brings us to our next embattled term.

2) Terrorism

Again, here is Fish: "When Reuters decided to be careful about using the word 'terrorism' because, according to its news director, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, castigated what he saw as one more instance of cultural relativism. But Reuters is simply recognizing how unhelpful the word is, because it prevents us from making distinctions that would allow us to get a better picture of where we are and what we might do. If you think of yourself as the target of terrorism with a capital T, your opponent is everywhere and nowhere."

For starters, in no moral universe, except a relativistic one, do terrorists equal freedom fighters. Any freedom fighter worthy of the name does not kill innocent civilians. He targets the armies and military installations of the hostile occupying power, as a means of driving that power out. As such, he does so systematically, not randomly. His aim is not to terrify, or revenge himself upon his enemy, but to vanquish and expel him. The killing is a means to an end, and fairly undertaken in accordance with the rules of engagement in war, even guerrilla war.

A terrorist, by contrast, always targets civilians -- innocent bystanders to the conflict at hand. And he always does so at random. That's why he's called a terrorist. Duh. Terrorists are terrifying precisely because we do not know when or where they will strike next. They are indeed "everywhere and nowhere," and each of us, though a noncombatant, is made to feel that he is on the front lines of a war, a war he never declared and can do nothing to abridge. That combination of helplessness and vulnerability is the quintessence of terrorism.

Al-Qaida is its embodiment, and worse. It represents a new breed of terrorism even more senseless and terrifying than the old, and one eminently worthy of a capital T. These men have no cause but carnage. They are fighting solely for their pound of Western flesh. Nothing more. Why else would they bomb civilians randomly, refuse to take responsibility for the deed and make no demands? Even Arafat has rejected al-Qaida's clumsy, disingenuous attempts to co-opt the Palestinian cause after the fact. And now bin Laden is raving about Kashmir as well? Talk about a desperate grab bag of conceits. This isn't principled conflict. This is pure sadistic opportunism, bloodlust posing as crusade, a false paradigm of East vs. West engineered for one purpose only, to plunge the whole world into chaos.

To call such people anything but terrorists, or something more pejorative -- yes, even evil -- if we can think of it, is to play into their unappeasable hands, to disseminate their propaganda. To say, as Fish does, that they are "an enemy who comes at us with a full roster of grievances, goals and strategies," is to give them much more, not less (as he claims), credit than they deserve. Their belated grievances are a sham, and their strategy, mass murder, their goal. That's all. No equivocation need apply to or cloud this fact.

But nebulizing what's clear is the favored sport of Fish and friends. From his throne of great wisdom and remove, Fish supposes that, in the throes of our cultural brainwashing, we condemn our enemy solely because he is the enemy, and not because he is wrong. We lack empathy. Understanding. And most of all -- here is the arrogant subtext -- intelligence. We use the words coward and terrorist because they are insulting, effective at demonizing an adversary against whom we are required to whip up public belligerence. If we were more enlightened, we'd see that such terms are inappropriate and, in fact, unhelpful to our greater understanding of the crisis we face.

Of course, precisely the opposite is true. Using terminology that applies, and can be reasonably argued to apply, is exactly what clarifies the situation and allows us to see it clearly and act accordingly. By contrast, this kind of intellectual gamesmanship and epistemic masturbation in which Fish and his ilk are so fond of indulging is utterly unhelpful.

Oh sure, to the uninitiated it sounds urbane on paper. Why it's the very porridge every sophist serves and every sophomore groupie eats for breakfast. But it is by no means "another name for serious thought." Rather it is just more proof of how irrelevant, self-aggrandizing, and willfully obfuscating our vogueish cognoscenti continue to be.

In trying to interpret the current crisis through a postmodern, morally relativistic lens, the usual suspects on the intellectual left threaten to seriously harm our focus and our spirit in a wildly confusing time. This is not to say that subtle, critical thinking is out of place in the current climate. On the contrary, it is desperately needed. But clarity, a reasonable attempt to face facts, and a concerted effort to use language responsibly are the intellectual's solemn mandate in trying times such as these, when life and death are at stake. It's not the time for word games.

By Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent is a New York journalist.

MORE FROM Norah Vincent

Related Topics ------------------------------------------