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Failing to Understand the Terrorists

If there were one word that we should expunge from the political lexicon, it would be “cowardly.” This is not because there are no acts or deeds to which it can rightly be applied, but because our politicians and officials have lost the ability to use it aptly. They fail to make the proper moral distinction between cowardice and other qualities.

Time and again this description is given to acts which, though repellent or evil, are certainly not cowardly, indeed are conspicuously brave. The latest instances are Mayor de Blasio’s comments after an Uzbek man driving a rented truck killed eight people and injured a dozen others on a busy bicycle path in New York City on Tuesday, and the United Nations Special Envoy to Somalia, Michael Keating, and the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, responding to the slaughter of at least 239 people in a bombing in Mogadishu by a suspected al-Shabaab terrorist on October 14.

Mr. Keating said: “Such cowardly attacks reinvigorate the United States to assist our Somali and African Union partners.” Mr. Johnson condemned “in the strongest terms the cowardly attacks in Mogadishu.” Would either of them care to fill a truck with explosives and deliberately blow it up with himself inside in order to kill as many other people as possible? Certainly it would take more courage than I possess to do such a thing: though I hasten to add that I have reasons other than lack of courage to inhibit me.

Nonetheless, it is an important point in moral reflection that what is ordinarily thought of as a virtue, namely courage, is not virtuous in a free-standing way, independent of its purpose. Messrs. Keating and Johnson, and Mr. de Blasio, too, forget this. Many a moral monster has been courageous, but his courage in no way lessens his moral reprehensibility. Whether it actually adds to it is another question; it may certainly increase its effect in practice.

The danger of using the word “cowardly” in so obviously mistaken a way is that it gives the impression that, if the attack were not cowardly, if to the contrary it were brave, it would not be as bad and indeed might even be worthy of admiration. And since to blow yourself up in a truck is conspicuously brave by comparison with what most of us would be prepared to do, it follows that these denunciations perversely invite us to consider terrorists acts as in some way admirable—which, I need hardly add, they are not.

Somalia has played only a very small part in my life: I visited its capital in the 1980s, when Mohamed Siad Barre was still President. Brief as was my visit, however, it was instructive.

I flew from Riyadh to Mogadishu on Saudi Arabian Airlines. For the first and only time in my life I flew first class, for lack of seating anywhere else. As soon as the plane took off, the black niqabs of the women were thrown off with a flourish, revealing the women underneath to be stylishly, expensively, and in some cases scantily dressed in tight-fitting designer clothes, as well as heavily made up. The reality of a society is often different from at least some of its appearance; and many years later, a doctor who had worked in Saudi told me that the inviolability of the women’s quarters in a Saudi household and the niqab itself were conducive to extramarital affairs, provided the male lover was prepared to don a niqab himself, which he often was.

The strongly Italian atmosphere and influence in Mogadishu, despite the many years and dramatic events since independence in 1960, surprised me. Whatever else might have been said of the Italians as colonial overlords, they knew how to build a graceful city (now, of course, comprehensively destroyed), and they had a beneficial effect on the cuisine.

I received a lesson in the politics of aid in Mogadishu that I have never forgotten. Siad Barre was a dictator, and though from a later perspective his reign may have seemed almost like a golden age, this is not how it seemed then (history being experienced forwards and not backwards). The country was not prospering. Far from it; there were reports of famine, there was a cholera epidemic raging in the north, and there was fighting with Ethiopia in the Ogaden.

I went to the offices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to obtain information about what was happening, but the staff of that august office were on strike and there was no one to receive me. According to the notice board, the staff of the UNHCR had two grievances. The first and lesser of the two was that the portions of food in the staff canteen were too small; the second and more serious was that the Somali government wanted to force the staff to convert their hard currency salaries into Somali shillings at the official rate, which was many times that of the open, or black, market rate.

The Somali government wanted to use what amounted to aid money as a source of foreign currency, not of course for the benefit of the country or its population as a whole, but for that of its own elite, while the aid workers expected to live at least at the standard of the former Italian colonialists. I repeat: There was a famine and cholera epidemic at the time of the strike. Aid certainly aided, but it did not aid the poor.

Another lesson I learned was that neither alliances nor political friendships were permanent, but rather as mutable as a gestalt switch. For many years, Somalia had been an ally of the Soviet Union, as Ethiopia had been that of the United States. Indeed, Siad Barre came to power promising, and trying to implement, a regime of “scientific socialism” as it was then still called. What Marx and Engels would have made of it is anybody’s guess. Somalia was not home to much of an industrial proletariat, to put it mildly.

But then Ethiopia had its revolution and tried a little collectivization of its own (leading to millions of deaths), and in the process became a firm ally and client of the Russians. Since the mutual hatred of Somalia and Ethiopia ran far deeper than mere ideology, Somalia promptly forswore the Russians and now sided with the democratic West in the Cold War. It would have been comic if it had not been tragic.

Interestingly, in Somalia, there was no nostalgia for Soviet days (as there was for the days of Italian rule). The one remnant of Soviet influence that I found was an English-Somali phrase book which I still treasure, with such useful phrases as, “How many workers are there on your collective farm?” and “Hand me the opera glasses, please.”

Finally, my brief visit to Somalia taught me to be skeptical of one theory purporting to explain why post-colonial Africa had experienced such difficulties in its development: namely that the borders of countries were the purely arbitrary constructions of the colonial powers, such that the polities contained within them attracted no loyalty from their populations.

In fact Somalia was not so arbitrary a construction. Its borders corresponded—not perfectly, but reasonably well—with the extent of the Somali population. But the clan nature of the Somali people led to seemingly perpetual conflicts over who should control the state. Other African polities that more or less coincided with their “natural” borders varied greatly in their fate, from Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland), by far the most successful country in Africa, to Rwanda and Burundi, long bywords for the most vicious and devastating of catastrophes, passing through Lesotho (formerly Basutoland) and Swaziland.

Occasionally I encounter Somali immigrants, and though my experience of their country was very limited, they are (unless I delude myself) delighted to meet someone who has even a brief firsthand experience of their homeland. It creates at least a momentary connection or understanding between us; and that must come as some slight relief to people living in a social world that is alien, and frequently hostile where it is not indifferent, to them.

Reader Discussion

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on November 02, 2017 at 09:11:28 am

If there were one word that we should expunge from the political lexicon, it would be “cowardly.” This is not because there are no acts or deeds to which it can rightly be applied, but because our politicians and officials have lost the ability to use it aptly. They fail to make the proper moral distinction between cowardice and other qualities.

Time and again this description is given to acts which, though repellent or evil, are certainly not cowardly, indeed are conspicuously brave.

Responding to President George W. Bush's statement that the suicide terrorists who had attacked the US on 9/11 had acted cowardly, Bill Maher responded, "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, that's not cowardly. Stupid maybe, but not cowardly." Bill Maher, Politically Incorrect (September 17, 2001).

It is said that a gaff is not when a politician accidentally says something wrong, but when he accidentally says something right. Saying true but unpopular things is politically incorrect. In Maher's case, there was no accident: Maher said what he said knowingly; clearly he was not acting cowardly. And, ironically, his politically incorrect remark is widely regarded as the reason for ABC cancelling his show Politically Incorrect.

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nobody.really
on November 02, 2017 at 09:51:17 am

I still think I'd go with "audacity" rather than "courage." But thank you for this, in any event,.

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aez
on November 02, 2017 at 10:26:14 am

Agreed - but then again, how about one slight edit of Maher:

"Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, that’s not cowardly. [Evil], but not cowardly.”

It strikes me that focusing on the *courage* of an attacker motivated by an undifferentiated hatred / venom toward the defenseless is to permit us to avoid the recognition that *the acts* themselves are, quite frankly EVIL while simultaneously denying the motivations of the wretched bastard in committing the atrocity.

No, as Dalrymple alludes, courage may not be given it's full measure without recourse / consideration of the circumstances.

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gabe
on November 02, 2017 at 13:08:52 pm

I have long admired Mr Dalrymple's essays but on this question I must disagree. What terrorists exhibit is not courage but something else, something for which we do not have a commonly employed name. Let me suggest that we call it merely "toughness." Courage in the classical sense is a virtue, a perfection of persons, that consists in the habitual capacity to endure suffering for the sake of good ends. Until our moral discourse became so impoverished that we find it almost impossible to distinguish between good and evil, we could recognize the difference between killing the innocent (as a very bad thing indeed) and defending them. Regardless of what they think they are doing, the terrorist is engaged in a great evil, which is never neutralized by putative good intentions. He may be tougher than many of us but he is never courageous and it is a perversion of our language, not to mention a slander to first responders and the military to dignify his sin with that label.

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Robert G Kennedy
on November 02, 2017 at 17:29:25 pm

Shakespeare admonished us to “give the devil his due”: We need to try to distinguish between facts and our judgments about facts.

We can acknowledge that a person has strength, whether or not we admire the person who has the strength or what she does with it. We can acknowledge that a person has wealth, whether or not we admire the person who has the wealth, or what she does with it. And we can acknowledge that a person has courage, whether or not we admire the person who has the courage or what she does with it.

We all struggle with cognitive dissonance: Acknowledging that a person can have desirable and undesirable traits at the same time. Hitler lived a relatively Spartan life of self-denial. Martin Luther King, Jr., cheated on his wife. Real flesh-and-blood human beings rarely conform perfectly to our conceptual models of heroes and villains. Plenty of psychological studies reveal the extent to which we are prone to re-consider factual judgments about a person or thing when our preferences for that person or thing change. Clearly this propensity toward motivated thinking undermines critical thinking. We need to resist this tendency.

So let’s start here: History reveals a number of people who willingly gave their lives for a cause they believed in. That takes courage. And as far as I know, this list includes the 9/11 attackers. We don’t have to like what they did to acknowledge that the act took courage, and that they did it.

Evil, sinful, wicked, misguided, wrong—feel free to judge their actions. But let’s not confuse the judgments we make about facts with the facts themselves.

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nobody.really
on November 02, 2017 at 21:14:53 pm

I do not agree that the 9/11 hijackers were brave; they might have been, but I am not convinced of the proposition by the mere fact that killed themselves. Hermann Goering, on the eve of his scheduled hanging, killed himself by ingesting cyanide. Was he brave to do so? How about the resentful ex-husband who kills his former spouse then himself? Were Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris courageous because they pacified themselves with gunshots to the head after randomly killing schoolmates? Are there any circumstances under which we consider suicide to be cowardly?

I would submit that the quality possessed by terrorists is neither courage, not cowardice, but rather resolve. They choose their outcome, then see it through. The brave person does not choose an outcome that, to others, may seem undesirable (the 9/11 hijackers, remember wanted to die and go to paradise, a subjectively desirable outcome), rather he risks an outcome that he decidedly does not want. The Apollo 11 astronauts were brave, because they risked dying in outer space when they would rather not. They chanced an outcome they wished to avoid. They took a risk that things would not work out; that is brave. Choosing to blow yourself up is to choose an acceptable, and perhaps desirable outcome, even if most people would not do so. This may involve courage, which seems at a minimum to require some element of confronting fear, or it may not.

Sometimes there is no easy way to distinguish virtuous from crazy.

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z9z99
on November 03, 2017 at 10:14:22 am

Perhaps, I have a jaundiced view of the matter, but it seems to me that "courage" implies that someone is *shooting* back at you.

To deny that component, distorts the actual facts!

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gabe
on November 03, 2017 at 14:24:23 pm

I think there is some truth to this. In the American Civil War, many soldiers considered snipers to be cowardly. In the first World War, U boat attacks were considered by some to be cowardly, although I suspect that it took some courage to even serve on a U-Boat. In this, I can see where an attack on unarmed victims can be called "cowardly," even if it includes resolve on the part of the perpetrator to die in the act. Again, I think courage is to be found more readily in taking the risk of an outcome that one would not choose, rather than in choosing an outcome that others would not.

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z9z99
on December 29, 2017 at 19:01:20 pm

Apart from the fact that it was Socrates who questioned 'courage' as a virtue on itself, I do think there is 'a commonly employed name' for the acts of 'terrorists'. But it is a 'name' that describes a different level than the adjectives 'courageous' or 'toughness' do.
Quoting the Belgian Islam-expert Wim van Rooy I would suggest the right term to describe the 'acts' of terrorists is by indicating them as being acts that reveal a 'warrior mentality', whereas the mainstream western mentality rather is that of a 'bourgeois mentality'. I think it is fair to say there really is no question as to which mentality will survive in a war situation.

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P.J.F. Dees

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