Six Opinions: Were the 9/11 Terrorists Cowards or Courageous?
Ruth R. Wisse:
“Courage and cowardice are culturally determined, and God cannot help the society that confuses its values with those of its rivals.”
We attribute courage to men and women who defend our values in the face of adversity. Facing adversity in itself may be either bold or reckless; upholding values may be noble in some cases and effortless in others. It’s the combination of the two — upholding values and facing adversity — that earns the tribute of “courage.” America sets great store by its freedoms, its constitutional culture and integrity as a nation. We call courageous those who protect and advance these when they come under attack.
I understand the IC symposium to be asking whether multiculturalism has taken us to the point of no longer having the confidence to distinguish our values from those of our assailants. Undoubtedly, some of my university colleagues have reached that tipping point...
“It is this now almost-vanished honor culture which is speaking when terrorists are called ‘cowardly.’ In its view, they are cowardly because they are sneaky.”
If it doesn’t take courage to immolate oneself along with a crowd of strangers by flying an airplane into the side of a building, then what does it take? Surely it must be something that resembles courage, as we ordinarily understand the term, so closely as to be indistinguishable from it. Former president Bush and others sometimes referred to this and similar terrorist acts as “cowardly” because, I think, of the social class to which they belong...
“[W]e do not find courage with Atta and his team who sought death but with Beamer, Glick, Green, and others on Flight 93 who fought for life.”
...Atta, along with several knife-wielding, muscular accomplices, implemented a studied and practiced plan of deception that took advantage of the trust of airline personnel to slip disguised as innocent travelers onto aircraft filled with men, women, and children. Soon into the flight they sprang upon these defenseless people, commandeered the aircraft by cutting the throats of stewardesses and pilots, and then deceived those remaining into believing that a non-deadly plan was in place. This was so that without interference they could pilot them all to their deaths by plowing the planes into buildings also filled with unsuspecting people going about their morning business.
What I’ll call the Beamer group, on the other hand, had that day no thought of needing their skills and energies for any purpose other than to travel quietly to their destinations. The events they confronted were thrust upon them with little information other than cell phone communications informing them of the likely deadly aims of their captors. With little time to think, with no more weaponry than their own physical endowments, and with the realization that their chances of living through the efforts were small, these men fought their armed captors for the control of the aircraft and brought it crashing down in an empty field rather than into a populated city building...
“Is it an act of moral courage to promote violent jihad against those whom you consider the enemy? As a reform-minded Muslim, I find myself on the front lines of such questions.”
A generation ago, Robert F. Kennedy introduced students to the concept of moral courage. “Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society,” he declared at the University of Cape Town. “Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.”
...Recently, a young man named Amin wrote to me with a challenge. He spoke of a European Muslim woman who blogs about Islam’s “duty” to destroy the West, through arms if need be. This woman operates within the law of her country, Belgium, and proudly accepts public disapproval for what she believes. “She is speaking truth to power for a greater good,” Amin intoned.
Thus his challenge to me: is the female jihadi an agent of moral courage?
“From the ancient world until the reductive views of human beings that started to become dominant in the eighteenth century, courage, like every other virtue, had certain intrinsic characteristics, but was also related to other virtues without which its good qualities might quite literally go bad.”
...Of course, you can debase the meaning of the term courage by equating it with merely braving physical dangers that most people could not. But that is a colloquial way of speaking that has never been part of any serious thinking about the virtue of courage. It’s a bit like telling someone, “At least you’re honest,” when he has casually admitted to some deeply shameful act. Yes, he may have just told the truth, but unless he’s repenting or asking for pardon, it would be difficult to say there’s anything much good about it. In some circumstances, quite the opposite may be true...
...There’s nothing noble about walking into a pizza parlor in Israel and blowing up yourself and a bunch of civilians. There’s nothing elevating in shooting up a Mumbai hotel, attacking Westerners, and dying in the process. And even in the marriage of Heaven and Hell, to which the modern world sometimes desperately seeks to aspire, it takes great credulity to believe that there was anything in the September 11 murderers worthy of the exalted name of courage.