Slippery Words and Evil Deeds

No word is so misused as the word “cowardly.” Terrorist attacks are often said to be cowardly, when in fact the terrorists who carry them out for the worst of ends are sometimes extremely brave. They risk their lives and even intentionally lose them by their acts. At the very least they risk long and condign legal punishment and public opprobrium. I doubt if one person in a thousand can claim to have acted in his life as courageously as most terrorists.

The reason we call terrorists cowardly is that bravery is generally considered a virtue, and we are reluctant to accord people whom we abhor any virtues at all. We want our enemies to be endowed only with detestable qualities, and we are only too aware that courage is the virtue without which other virtues cannot be exercised. If someone were to say “these brave terrorist attacks,” we should suspect him of sympathizing with them.

This is all based on a confusion about the nature of the virtuousness of bravery. Bravery is not a free-standing virtue, as it were, such that anybody who displays it is thereby virtuous. It is like originality in art or architecture: originality is not a virtue unless in the production of something worthwhile sub specie aeternitatis, that is to say judged by a criterion other than originality itself. Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind are not good architects because no one ever built buildings like theirs before. They are good architects, if they are, because their buildings are good, if they are.

Likewise courage is a virtue when it is exhibited in pursuit of a worthy end, or at least one that is not wholly reprehensible. We can admire the courage of an opponent when his aim or goal, though we do not agree with it, is not wholly evil; but we do not admire the courage of German soldiers in the Second World War, though they undoubtedly showed much of it, because what they were fighting for was without any morally redeeming feature. Indeed, courage in pursuit of an evil goal is a vice, not a virtue, without thereby becoming recklessness, which is what Aristotle thought bravery carried to excess should be described as. Terrorists are not reckless: they do not disregard the effects of their attacks but rather want them and calculate to produce them. The attack on the writers and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo was not worse if carried out by reckless cowards than by brave men.

In describing terrorist attacks, therefore, we should eschew the word “cowardly”—they are not better if they are brave than if they are cowardly. Bravery cannot and does not redeem them.

There is another, slightly more subtle misuse of this word that is common, alas, among British policemen when they speak to the press. A recent case in point was that of a congenitally handicapped 67-year-old called Alan Barnes. Barnes, 4 feet 6 inches high, of strange appearance and with poor eyesight, was mugged outside his home in the North of England. His collar bone was broken in the attack, and not surprisingly he wanted to move away.

Just part of the lamentably long history of man’s inhumanity to man perhaps—but fortunately, not quite. A kind-hearted young local woman, Katie Cutler, was so appalled by the crime that she set up an Internet fund in the hope of raising $750 to assist Barnes. Within four days the fund had collected $420,000. Local lawyers, builders, tradesmen, shopkeepers and others have offered their services free, and Barnes, a strong Christian, has thanked the donors in a movingly dignified way. If there is inhumanity in the world, it is important to remember that there is also humanity.

When a local policemen in charge of elucidating the case spoke to the press, he said:

This was a cowardly assault on a vulnerable man who wasn’t able to defend himself. His disability means that he is partially sighted and quite short, and it’s disgraceful that someone would target him.

And a newspaper with a very large circulation described whoever had done it as the country’s “most cowardly thug.”

Now here, in the literal sense, the world “cowardly” is used correctly. The man who committed this crime knew that his victim was incapable of resistance and that he risked nothing (except being caught) by trying to rob him. But though the word is correctly used in the literal sense, nevertheless its use is morally corrosive, for it gives the impression that it was the cowardice that made this crime so awful.

Robbery is not a competitive sport such as boxing, which pits two roughly equal men against each other, both of whom are courageous if not necessarily wise. A robbery is not any the better for the victim’s being of the same size and strength as the robber, and therefore with a chance of escape or even apprehension of his assailant. But this is precisely the impression that the policeman (and the newspaper) gave by insisting on blaring out its message about the “cowardly thug.”

Of course it is true that the crime appalls us more than many, and we hope that when caught, the perpetrator will punished with the greatest severity; but it appalls us in a special way not because of the cowardice of the perpetrator but because it is an intimation of his deep-seated, heartless villainy. We sense that there is nothing to which he would not stoop for some trifling advantage to himself. If he can perpetrate such a crime, he can do anything. If he is not the, he is at least an incarnation of evil.

One might ask whether word choice matters here. What’s in a word, after all? What is a description of an act compared with an act itself? But I think that this laissez faire approach to language is a mistake, and this has been known for a long time. Confucius long ago pointed to the political dangers of saying what is not meant. If language is the medium of thought, then loose language undermines proper thought. As Pascal put it, let us labor to think well, for such is the beginning of morality.

Reader Discussion

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on February 09, 2015 at 10:09:16 am

Preach on my man, Preach on! To many in today's time think that because a person isn't what they think of as having virture or courage than said person is a coward or worst. The truth be told many Americans cheered and cried at the end of Independence day when Dennis Quads plane was flown into the alien space ship but called the 9/11 highjackers cowards. I truly feel that if we don't learn to understand certain things we're going to end up with the same results. Also does anyone but me think we are being hurded like cattle to specific wars. Basically what I mean is does is not seem like smoke and mirrors in the news now.

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Anthony Duncan
on February 09, 2015 at 10:43:55 am

Very, very interesting, though I still favor the word "audacious" for such as terrorists; I've always thought that true bravery, genuine courage, would have been refusing to carry out those orders, letting the planes land, and turning oneself in, etc. But you make an excellent case. It sounds like I may need to differentiate "brave" from "courageous," and given the history of the words, that is probably a good idea.

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on February 09, 2015 at 11:00:28 am

" I doubt if one person in a thousand can claim to have acted in his life as courageously as most terrorists."

Quite courageous to bomb an unsuspecting group of shopkeepers, is it? It matters not if the attackers life is also at risk, there is NO courage associated with the act.
We may as well argue that the lunatic who leaps joyfully from the tower of the Golden Gate Bridge is courageous simply because he places his life in imminent peril. You stretch the argument too far.

A Confederate, and yes, even a German, soldier may be said to have displayed courage in a losing and morally deficient cause as both must confront an adversary that was aware of the attackers lethal possibilities / potential - there was some measure of risk associated with the act that could lead to failure.
And what say you regarding the risk associated with placing a bomb in a shopkeepers window? No risk, no courage - in quite simple terms. Madness, perhaps - courage -NO!!!

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on February 09, 2015 at 11:21:13 am

Ideology trumps bravery. A distinction should be made between fanaticism and bravery, the first being a derangement of the mind, however temporary, and the man who acts out of an understood set of principles and purpose. Bravery is a virtue the other is not.

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on February 09, 2015 at 11:41:59 am

Your going under the assumption that a terrorist as we're told to refer to them has not had the same do to them. Japan thought that the act of bombing them was cowardly, we on the other hand did not since they bombed Perl barber. Though they would make the argument that they attacked a military installation and not main land America but we bomb civilians and was cool with it. Courage in truth is in the eye of the beholder but take it from someone who has seen true cowardly acts perpetrated like a child molested will being made to watch so some sick'o can get their rocks off by seeing you helpless, someone willing to do whatever it takes in the name of their GOD no matter who we might feel is pretty Courage's. Would you not do whatever for you GOD? Remember rather he told Abraham it wasn't necessary or not GOD did tell him to slew ISSAC to prove his loyalty.

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Anthony Duncan
on February 09, 2015 at 11:45:56 am
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Anthony Duncan
on February 09, 2015 at 12:38:40 pm

And "rationales" (excuses) are always in the eye of the defeated. Your history neglects to mention the Rape of Nanking - just one of many Japanese niceties, to be sure.

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on February 10, 2015 at 11:12:26 am

Cor: latin for heart - speaking metaphorically of courage - four chambers good, two chambers bad.
To elaborate:

This link https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ZMLzP1VCANo gives some insight into brain lateralisation.
Iain McGilchrist spent twenty years writing a book drawing on considerable research (not least as a practicing psychiatrist). https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=dFs9WO2B8uI

The letter of law - a predominantly left hemisphere concern, while the spirit of the law RH.
The price of everything LH, the value of things RH. Willpower, delay of gratification, the empathic consideration of others RH. Will to power, and particularly the emotions associated with the thwarting of that power; anger, aggression, desire for revenge, jihad etc LH.

The surrender to LH mode (or the natural born psychopath, if there is such a thing... one) is through short term pleasure seeking habits of manipulation, utilitarian cost/benefit assessment, seeing people as means and not ends in their own right. The anger of the frustrated will can be transformed into prideful spiritual high mindedness, jihad. Any 'courage' that arises from this is of a two chambered variety.

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on March 07, 2015 at 16:30:59 pm

It seems an exaggeration on the part of the good doctor to say that "we" don't admire the courage of Germans in WW2 because they were fighting for an evil cause. Any number of British servicemen expressed admiration of their adversaries' courage - most notably Admiral Tovey after his ships had sunk the huge battleship Bismarck, which was a deadly threat to British convoys. I am reading John Terraine's "The right of the line", which contains numerous tributes to German soldiers' courage in the face of overwhelming odds. But fighting men inevitably have a different attitude to the enemy.

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William Murphy
on March 19, 2015 at 13:18:18 pm

I wonder if maybe we shouldn't reserve the use of bravery only for acts that are virtuous? I haven't researched the etymology so I don't know if I can get away with that, but the point is that bravery always conjures up positive thoughts in our minds. And I don't see what is gained by nodding in agreement as Bill Mahr says the terrorists are quite brave. How about this--no they aren't. It's no more brave than kicking in the door of a house where you know an armed man lives (thus risking your life) so that you can rape his wife. No one would call that brave.

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Douglas Johnson

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