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Suicide Bombers as Cowards:

This trope is coming up again, yet it still seems to me quite mistaken. Suicide bombers are murderers, but there seems to me little logical reason (as opposed to the emotional gratification of insulting someone evil) to call them cowards.

The obvious point, of course, is that cowardice usually consists of fear of death or injury; the suicide bombers pretty clearly embrace their own deaths. (I set aside suicide bombers who are forced or tricked into being suicide bombers, for whom the analysis may be different.) Now it's true that attacking defenseless people is often seen as cowardice, but that's precisely because most attacks on defenseless people — as opposed to attacks on well-armed people — pose little immediate risk of death or injury for the attacker. Attacking defenseless people with a suicide bomb doesn't share that characteristic. Again, it's evil, but not cowardly.

Some have suggested that the cowardice here is in an unwillingness to confront punishment for their own crimes, much like some might fault a person who commits suicide rather than face a just trial as taking "the coward's way out." But I doubt that the typical suicide bomber is committing suicide to avoid the shame and humiliation of a trial. The crime is just easier to commit if he's willing to die. (A few people may in some situations commit suicide to prevent being taken prisoner and forced to divulge the names of their comrades; but while this may reflect their knowledge of their limited capacity to withstand various kinds of pressure, it generally isn't seen as cowardice. In any event I doubt that it's a big part of why suicide bombers choose that tactic, though it might be help their leaders choose it for them.)

Here's a thought experiment that I think helps put this into perspective: Imagine a just war in which a soldier volunteers for a "suicide mission," in the sense of a mission that is extremely likely to lead to his death. Say, for instance, that we need to knock out the place where the North Koreans keep their nuclear weapons, and the only way to do it is by sending in a force that's nearly certain to get killed (either because they use specific suicide tactics, or because they'll be so overwhelmingly outnumbered in such a tactically adverse situation that there's nearly no chance that they'll get out alive, even if there is a substantial chance that they'll accomplish their objective).

Naturally, our force will try to do what we can to make the target as defenseless as possible, for instance, by using extreme stealth. Though the guards are doubtless armed, our force will try to keep them from using their arms, sneak up behind them and cut their throats, use camouflage, and so on. Then it will destroy the installation, incidentally killing many people who are present; but in the process, our soldiers are sure to get killed.

The members of the force are willing to do that, because of love of country, desire for revenge (if, for instance, their families had been killed by the enemy), or even religious zeal. Some might even use their religious faith as consolation, thinking that their actions are righteous, and that they are trading off a life of emotional pain (again, assume their families had been killed) for heavenly bliss and reunion with their loved ones.

Surely this isn't cowardice: It's embracing danger and likely death, not evading it. To the extent the soldiers do try to evade capture, they're doing it to make the mission successful, not to decrease danger. The fact that they're avoiding trial or killing people who can't defend themselves (because they sneak up behind them) doesn't make them cowards — that's what they need to do to get their task done.

And their sense that their lives won't really be over, but that they'll instead go to a better place, doesn't make them cowards, either. One can, I suppose, say that it takes somewhat less courage to give up your life if you're 100% confident of life eternal than if you think your existence will just end, or if you're not sure. But this doesn't make the decision to give up your life when you're confident of the hereafter cowardly; at most, it makes it a bit less courageous.

Naturally, there's a huge difference between these people and Islamist suicide bombers: Our soldiers' actions are moral and even praiseworthy (because their ends are sound and because they are targeting a legitimate military target, and causing death to civilians only incidentally to that), while the Islamist suicide bombers' actions are immoral. But the difference has to do with morality, not with cowardice.

Again, I understand the emotional appeal of heaping all sorts of scorn on evil people: They're not just evil, but they're cowardly. And they're ugly, idiots, and probably lousy lovers. But it seems to me that this emotional relief comes at the price of logical error.

UPDATE: Chris Lansdown puts it well in the comments: "[T]argeting a group that's less able to defend itself to increase the likelihood of success rather than to decrease the likelihood of personal peril isn't cowardly, it's dastardly (which is worse, though a different sort of malfeasance)."

Anderson (mail) (www):
Exactly right, though I vaguely recall that Aristotle might disagree.

Of course, since Prof. Volokh is now echoing Susan Sontag's "New Yorker" piece after 9/11, it's time for all right-thinking conservatives to make him a pariah.

(Sontag said the 9/11 attacks were "monstrous," but that wasn't good enough.)
7.13.2005 4:52pm
NaG (mail):
My thought is that suicide bombers that target civilians are cowards in that they are intentionally targeting a group that is less able to defend itself from the attack. If the suicide bomber targets the military, there is a higher chance that the bomber will be prevented from detonating or will do less damage. That such suicide bombers avoid this higher risk of failure makes them cowardly, especially because the rewards of targeting the military would be much higher if successful.
7.13.2005 4:53pm
Chris Lansdown (mail) (www):
There is also the issue that the method of camoflage here is not pretending to be foliage but pretending to be civilians — i.e. combat without wearing a military uniform.
7.13.2005 5:00pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Here's Wikipedia for my half-remembered Aristotle. Annoyingly, they don't cite to anywhere in the Ethics (book 6, it appears).

Anyway, I suppose that we can simply refuse to call suicide bombers "brave" without their automatically being "cowardly." Or, heavens knows, disagree with Aristotle.
7.13.2005 5:01pm
Richard Bellamy (mail):
NaG's point assumes that the goals of the terrorist are better served through attacking military targets. I had been under the understanding that the goal was to affect political change by terrorizing the largest number of voters possible, who would then pressure their elected leaders to change the policy at issue.

In that case, attacking military targets would be LESS effective, since "regular" people are more likely to be terrorized by a terrorist attack than military people who are, to a certain degree, more prepared for it.
7.13.2005 5:02pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
NaG, cowardice as generally understood isn't about the risk of failing in one's endeavor; it's the fear of being injured or killed.
7.13.2005 5:04pm
Chris Lansdown (mail) (www):
Regarding NaG's point, targeting a group that's less able to defend itself to increase the likelihood of success rather than to decrease the likelihood of personal peril isn't cowardly, it's dastardly (which is worse, though a different sort of malfeasance).
7.13.2005 5:05pm
Nick (www):
You said:

Some have suggested that the cowardice here is in an unwillingness to confront punishment for their own crimes, much like some might fault a person who commits suicide rather than face a just trial as taking "the coward's way out." But I doubt that the typical suicide bomber is committing suicide to avoid the shame and humiliation of a trial. The crime is just easier to commit if he's willing to die.

I'd submit that cowardice could be defined in the fact in that in that fear of failure is difficult here. For instance, in a western it would be cowardly to shoot someone in the back? It can't be fear of being put on trial because someone might still witness you, thus putting your life in danger. The reason it's cowardly is that there is no opportunity for the other person to see you coming and thwart the attack.

Likewise with a suicide bomb, its very nature makes it difficult to thwart, and thus considered by many to be cowardly.
7.13.2005 5:08pm
NaG (mail):
I do think that suicide bombers would better achieve their goals by successfully targeting military targets. Suicide bombers do not envision convincing democracies through their actions to adopt Islamic fundamentalist policies. Ultimately, they believe in armed insurrection and military victory over infidel governments. Fortunately, they lack militaries capable of achieving this, so they resort to alternative methods like suicide bombing.
7.13.2005 5:12pm
Halfserious:
Maybe they're cowardly because bombers are (compared to death) more scared to go to Guantanamo Bay and have their pictures taken in compromising positions by PFC. Lyndie England, who is not even remotely erotic in any context.
7.13.2005 5:12pm
Anthony Dick:
Careful, this is the type of talk that got Bill Maher in trouble...
Aristotle, by the way, does seem to disagree somewhat with Eugene's sentiment, but perhaps not entirely. If I remember correctly, in his Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle defines courage as an ideal mean between rashness and cowardice. On his view, in order to truly possess the virtue of courage, a person must always know when and how it is appropriate for him to act. This practical knowledge is possible only for those who have fully developed their capacity for practical reason (or prudence, from the greek 'phronesis'), which enables a person to discern the correct means and ends of action in all circumstances. Thus Aristotle's conception of courage takes into account not only the way in which a person acts, but also the ends toward which he aims. The virtue of true courage (like all other virtues) requires full phronesis, which entails a complete knowledge of the good (which, for Aristotle, is objectively determinable for humans).
So, on Aristotle's view, I don't think we could call the suicide bombers courageous, since they seem to possess a distorted capacity for fixing the ends that guide their actions. But I think Aristotle may agree that the bombers aren't cowards, either. Rather, I think he might identify their vice as a type of rashness, which is opposite from but equally repugnant to cowardice.
7.13.2005 5:12pm
NaG (mail):
Anderson: It is cowardly, in my view, to go with what is easier. In addition, remember that for a suicide bomber the fear is of being taken alive. The chance of that is much higher when targeting the military. Just because the suicide bomber has different goals than the average person doesn't mean they aren't being cowardly when acting consciously to hedge their bets against results they find unfavorable, even when the rest of us might favor that result.
7.13.2005 5:18pm
J Mann (mail) (www):
I think what people are getting at with "coward" is a lack of chivalry - that if terrorists were braver, they would attack military targets under the rules of war, but because they're scared to do that, they hide in civilian clothes and attack civilian targets. It's not an unreasonable evolution of the word, although it doesn't take into account that they're willing to face death, at least on their own terms.
7.13.2005 5:25pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
Anderson would have us believe that we can't agree with Eugene Volokh here without also supporting Susan Sontag, who Eugene is supposedly "echoing". Not True.

Sontag not only said that the 9/11 terrorists were not cowards. She also said:
"Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed super-power, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?"

And she did not say in that article that the attacks were monstrous. She said they were a "monstrous dose of reality".

Sontag was on the other side.
7.13.2005 5:26pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
Anderson --

Actually, when I read Prof. Volokh's original post, that's what immediately struck me -- the lack of *risk* involved in the endeavor. Don't get me wrong, I actually agree with the good prof to a large extent. However, it is interesting to think about, and I don't the concept of risk deserves to be dismissed as easily as you did above. I mean, isn't that what "bravery" is -- Accepting risk? Conversely, isn't it possible to be "cowardly" about more than just the risk of death or injury?

I guess that's what I find (moderately) interesting. The suicide bombers aren't exactly "risking" anything.

- jc
7.13.2005 5:28pm
Justin Shubow:
I think part of the issue here is that "cowardly" has two senses: 1) being fearful and frightened 2) being uncourageous.

Of course, a person can be uncourageous without being fearful, but I think that people might be relying on the second sense when speaking of terrorists since "uncourageous" simply doesn't have the same sting as "cowardly."

Contrary to it Eugene, I think that the attackers' state of mind makes them not just a bit less courageous, but virtually completely uncourageous. After all, they were quite certain that 1) they will be successful 2) their deaths will be painless and 3) they will immediately go to heaven. (That they really believe 3) has been demonstrated in interviews with failed Palestinian suicide bombers when they awake, to their surprise, in a hospital.)
7.13.2005 5:32pm
Justin Shubow:
I think part of the issue here is that "cowardly" has two senses: 1)being fearful and frightened 2) being uncourageous.

Of course, a person can be uncourageous without being fearful, but I think that people might be relying on the second sense when speaking of terrorists since "uncourageous" simply doesn't have the same sting as "cowardly."

Contrary to it Eugene, I think that the attackers' state of mind makes them not just a bit less courageous, but virtually completely uncourageous. After all, they were quite certain that 1) they will be successful 2) their deaths will be painless and 3) they will immediately go to heaven. (That they really believe 3) has been demonstrated in interviews with failed Palestinian suicide bombers when they awake, to their surprise, in a hospital.)
7.13.2005 5:33pm
Nels (mail):
I think Nick got to the essence of cowardice. In the sense it's not a "fair" fight. You don't attack someone who can't defend themselves, it's not the honorable way to fight.
7.13.2005 5:39pm
Cityduck (mail):
>>The suicide bombers aren't exactly "risking" anything.<<

Except their lives and their souls. At a minimum, a suicide bomber shows the "courage of their convictions." They take their own lives because they have managed to conquer any doubts they might have regarding their faith. The risk they face is that their faith that they are acting appropriately in the context of their religion, and will achieve martyrhood, is misplaced.
7.13.2005 5:40pm
Anonymous Coward (mail) (www):
cowardice usually consists of fear of death or injury As always with a law professor - to once accept the premise is to either endorse the conclusion or decide "I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself" For certain groups of people the prayer "don't let me fuck up" is far more prominent than any hope of getting out of this alive.
7.13.2005 5:43pm
NaG (mail):
Except, Cityduck, the suicide bombers don't view losing their life or going to some punishment in the afterlife as a risk because they fervently believe that giving up their lives in this action will guarantee them rewards. The only risks they are cognizant of is the risk that they fail to kill themselves and the risk of not doing any damage.
7.13.2005 5:44pm
erp (mail):
I really don't care to analyze terrorists, I just want them permanently removed from the earth so they can't endanger me and my fellow human beings residing on said planet.

The terrorist in Virginia was sentenced to life in prison. What good does that do? How many dozens if not hundreds of potential terrorists will he be able to convert. Converts whose prison terms may end well before he dies or is paroled for good behavior.
7.13.2005 5:45pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Nick writes that "I'd submit that cowardice could be defined in the fact in that in that fear of failure is difficult here. For instance, in a western it would be cowardly to shoot someone in the back? It can't be fear of being put on trial because someone might still witness you, thus putting your life in danger. The reason it's cowardly is that there is no opportunity for the other person to see you coming and thwart the attack."

Yet I think this proves my point. In the military, it's not considered "cowardly" to shoot someone in the back in a surprise mission. (It's also considered smart.) Such a killing may not itself be an act of great courage (though going on the mission more broadly may be courageous), but neither is it an act of cowardice.

In fact, much good solid military tactics consists precisely in minimizing the other person's chances of seeing you coming and thwarting your attack. (One way of doing that, incidentally, is to choose the entrance manned by the most lightly armed guards rather than the one manned by the most heavily armed guards.) Yet we wouldn't call our soldiers who do this "cowards" for doing so.

Neither are the suicide bombers cowards. Murderers, yes, fiends, yes, cowards, no.
7.13.2005 5:48pm
NaG (mail):
I agree with Prof. Volokh that being sneaky is not cowardly. A suicide bomber concealing their dangerous payload under their clothing is no different than a soldier wearing camouflage. My analysis, on the other hand, concerns itself with the choice of targets. Doesn't targeting civilians appear cowardly compared to targeting the military? One analogy that comes to mind is a hunter deciding to hunt city pigeons rather than wild tigers.
7.13.2005 5:58pm
David Zarmi (mail):
I understand your point NaG, but I think society's ideas of cowardice change depending on context. I admit, that in the mentality you mention, even a sheriff who is killing a murderer to protect the townspeople, would still be a coward to shoot him in the back, even though if the sheriff loses there may be nobody left to protect the womenfolk. But I find it hard to imagine that any more than a tiny minority of Americans would call the regular tactics of our soldiers to be cowardly. The difference, I think, is professionalism - the soldiers have a profession - war - which consists of ending the conditions of war as soon as possible. The sheriff earlier has many duties and views his "bad guys" as people; soldiers are trained not to. They are different jobs. This isn't quite coherent, but I hope you see where I'm going. Part of this stems from the fact that, as Eugene mentioned, we don't consider soldiers to be cowardly when they complete stealth missions, if we care what society thinks. Otherwise cowardly can mean whatever we want. :)
So the question is what are these bombers? They see themselves in a war, we see them as criminals, perhaps (and perhaps incorrectly). If they are soldiers and the goal is to end the war as quickly as possible by extending dar al islam to the world, they would not be cowards (but still evil by any standards I wouldn't spit on). If they had a personal vendetta against the people they killed (perhaps disliking Americans or Israelis/Jews), then they would probably be cowards.
7.13.2005 6:01pm
Wallace Green (mail):
Since when is committing suicide considered anything but cowardly, under any circumstances?

The parallel with a "near-suicide" mission of our own military fails in that our men do not go in hoping for death, or in fact fearing that they will not die, as the suicide bombers do.

Suicide is an escape from this world. It is undoubtedly part of the recruiting sales pitch that the prospective bomber will avoid all punishment and receive vast reward in the afterlife. Cowardly seems quite apt a description to me, along with evil and deranged.
7.13.2005 6:02pm
Splunge (mail):
It's weird that Professor Volokh seems to assume that that which is most to be feared by someone (including a suicide bomber) is merely death. Surely there are far greater things to fear having to accept, compared to which accepting death requires far less courage.

Indeed, the entire "root causes" movement argues that glorious martyrdom is preferable, for any reasonable human being, to an ignominious irrelevance and miserably meager personal prospects, and that this is precisely why suicide bombers exist. It's a powerful argument, if almost certainly grossly overused.

Hence the cowardice comes in the failure of the individual, confronting real and imagined insults to his self, his creed, and his community, to have the resilience and psychological strength to undertake the painfully slow road of building self-respect and community self-respect through peaceful and democratic means, with all the political compromise and settling for half a load that entails. Instead, the individual settles for making a futile but spectacular and uncompromising gesture. That he loses his life in the bargain is small potatoes, since humans (especially young poor humans) very often do value glory over mere grinding existence. So the adjective "cowardly" is hardly wildly illogical.

Furthermore, it may have some use in the political semi-dialogue we are engaged in with the supporters of such people, the folks in the Islamic community who turn a benign blind eye to the activities of the suicide bomber, or who passively cooperate in the way they report their activities.

The greatest virtue of these young crazies from the supporters' point of view is their courage. It makes sense to promote an alternative view of their courage, which says that staying at home and working hard at inglorious occupations like repairing electricity grids and building schools is a more courageous thing to do than blowing yourself and innocent others to bits.

This is, in fact, probably a necessary change of heart among the supporters of the suicide bomber for the latter to die out. Glory-seeking martyrs need an audience, and the more that audience can be trained (or coerced) to award them less glory, the less attractive the trade becomes, clearly.

That this goal involves choosing public phraseology more for its persuasive power than its clarifying power should come as no great surprise.
7.13.2005 6:03pm
Challenge:
Many here have honed in on the "cowardly" nature of suicide bombing. Many people describe suicide itself as "the easy way out" (e.g. the coward's way out). Is Eugene saying that expression is also mistaken?

Killing scores of innocents to reach heaven where "72 virgins" are waiting is indeed cowardly. If one real believes such prizes are waiting as reward for their attack on defensless innocents, aren't they in fact cowards, taking the "easy way out"?

Eugene's response is again, inapt. He points out that soldiers shooting other soldiers in the back, if necessary, would not be considered cowardly. Well, what about soldiers shooting helpless, innocent civilians, Mr. Volokh? Is that not cowardly?
7.13.2005 6:08pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Parties do have side conversations, right? So I won't feel too guilty about the Sontag digression.

The Sontag ref was from memory, but I've gone &looked at the text. Now, to LTEC's remarks.

Sontag not only said that the 9/11 terrorists were not cowards. She also said: "Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed super-power, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?"

But this is true, according to ex-CIA Mike Scheuer &others who've opposed or studied Osama. Is Scheuer "on the other side" too? The fact that our actions led to our being attacked doesn't impugn our actions.

And she did not say in that article that the attacks were monstrous. She said they were a "monstrous dose of reality".

True, but I don't see how you can avoid inferring from her words that she found the attacks monstrous.

Sontag was on the other side.

You'll have to prove that with something other than the article in question, I fear.
7.13.2005 6:13pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Since when is committing suicide considered anything but cowardly, under any circumstances?

Well, the word "Japan" comes to mind.
7.13.2005 6:14pm
James Ellis (mail):
Interestingly (at least to me), "courage" has its origins in the Latin word for "heart." Embedded it is an implication of a firm and admirable resolve, especially when demonstrated by a willingness to confront danger, disapproval, imprisonment, etc. "Coward" comes from the Latin word for "tail." The word seems to encompass elements of timidity, shamefulness and disgrace.

If you believe in a "totality of the circumstances" type test, then a super-shameful and really-disgraceful act, like the 9/11 hijackings or the London bombings, certainly could satisfy the "cowardly" test, regardless of timidity or fear of danger to one's self. If, on the other hand, you've got a bright line "timidity" threshold, I'm not sure that either 9/11 or London makes it.

The "anthrax letter" might be the right thought experiment here--do we need to know anything about the perpetrator--his timidity, fear, motives, denials or even immunization status--before we can label him a "coward"?
7.13.2005 6:15pm
AFR:
erp:

>I really don't care to analyze terrorists, I just want them permanently >removed from the earth so they can't endanger me and my fellow human >beings residing on said planet.

What if analyzing them helps us defeat them?

LTEC:

I don't come to start a huge argument that will go nowhere, but briefly:

>Sontag not only said that the 9/11 terrorists were not cowards. She also >said: "Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a 'cowardly' attack >on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on >the world's self-proclaimed super-power, undertaken as a consequence of >specific American alliances and actions?"

You can disagree with Sontag, but it's also (always seemed to me) reasonable to argue that, well, yeah, we were attacked because of our position on the world stage (and what we do with it), not because of our shining internal freedoms. I've always thought that people who don't want to hear this line of argument are adopting the knee-jerk "blaming the rape victim" reflex, the conflation of "X happened to Y because of A, B, and C" and "X happened to Y because of A--and Y deserved it!" (The power of this argument when it comes to rape is that a lot of people DO make that conflation, in my experience.) I don't disagree with what you've quoted, but that doesn't mean I think we deserved it, or even think we ought to radically alter our behavior, any more than I'd recommend that women who don't want to get raped had better [show no skin, never drink in public, never flirt, etc.] or they'll get what's coming to them.

>And she did not say in that article that the attacks were monstrous. She >said they were a "monstrous dose of reality".

They weren't? One thing that happened on 9/11, for at least a moment, was that America's sense of invulnerability was punctured. I happen to think that the puncture has closed up, for the most part. I don't think that's a good thing. I can think this without being on the "other side," because I don't think our getting attacked was a good thing either, and I don't think we "had it coming".
7.13.2005 6:17pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
The anthrax terrorist didn't blow himself up, or AFAWK even contract anthrax.

Stepping back, it's a little weird that we even *care* whether suicide bombers are cowardly. When did "evil" cease to be enough?

And where does this thread leave B-52 pilots firebombing Tokyo?
7.13.2005 6:18pm
Noel Magee:
Cowardice consists of not the fear of death or injury but, rather, a response to some fear (any fear will do) that places the cost of the response on the shoulders of another. While the suicide bombers feared to live in a world not sufficiently fundamentalist they placed the harm on others who did wish to live. Given their predilection for an afterlife filled innumerable joys, one is hard pressed to argue that they risk or lose anything by death. OTOH, those whom they killed and injured can clearly be seen as harmed either from their own view (they wanted to live) or from the bombers view (no more chance for redemption).

Seems like there is also some differentiation based on the intent of the target. In Eugene's "good guys" example the attacked group was defending a cache of weapons that could do harm. This could indicate an intent, or possible intent, to harm the attackers at some later date or time. In essence converting an offensive act (the raid) into a defensive tactic (against a potential harm). It is possible to argue that cowardly actions are those defined by the phrase "but they intended you no harm and could not have done you any harm" rather than by the simple statement of capability "but they could do you no harm". Thus a soldier shoots a soldier in the back and it's not cowardly; a soldier shoots a farmer and it is cowardly.

Being a Quaker, I find both the bombers and the military neither cowardly nor courageous. I find them to be the sorrow-filled actions of misguided people.
7.13.2005 6:25pm
Anonymous Coward (mail) (www):
Seems to me much of the discussion hinges on the state of mind of the suicide bomber - often projecting but I suggest with no clear knowledge. To the extent that attributing courage or cowardice requires a knowledge of the subjective state of mind then that attribution cannot be definitive but can only be made in the alternative.

It seems likely to me that there are other actions open to the decedents that I would find more praiseworthy but again that's another matter.

For my money the suicide bombers are cowards because (Umberto Ecco) when their real enemies are too strong they have to find weaker enemies. I can tolerate but not endorse killing children I would define as innocent when that killing is properly collateral damage. Certainly a straightforward assault on an M1A Abrams with a molotov cocktail can be courageous in all cases. Risking one's life to distribute phonograph records under tank treads to imitate Teller mines and so disrupt the tank advance is brave (Hungary not Iraq see also Tianneman Square). To deliberately refrain from attacking one's enemy directly (even with an "indirect approach") but rather to target innocents in the hopes of appealing to the better nature of one's enemy is I think cowardice in all cases.
7.13.2005 6:32pm
DK:
In theory, I would agree that a suicide bomber who is not afraid of strong women, of diverse opinions, of scientific inquiry, or of friendships with openly gay people should not be considered a coward.

In practice, I suspect the entire membership of Al Qaeda and the Taliban consists of intellectual cowards, even if some of them show a lack of physical fear.
7.13.2005 6:35pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Anon Coward, those are very good points. If the suicide bombers got themselves killed in hopeless attacks on military targets, we would be hard put not to have some sneaking admiration for them.

But this may still go to whether they're evil, not cowardly.
7.13.2005 6:37pm
Anonymous Coward (mail) (www):
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: he was the bravest of them all. Think about that in connection with the man who really shot Liberty Valence.

This is getting into moral courage vs. physical courage and right/wrong vs. honor/shame - what's right and what's shameful. Only in Tolkien and such can we say definitively that evil is distorted by definition. Yeovil-Thomas was quite prepared to testify for Skorzeny that their respective actions were equivalent.

In my view when our founding fathers pledged their sacred honor they meant that they engaged to do things for their cause that might place them in a bad light. Lacking a courage-meter or a mind reader I'll stand by my definitions that an indirect attack of this nature is cowardly because it can be contrasted with a direct attack - the villain who says to the hero I won't face your gun but I'll gladly hang if I can take my revenge by killing your family is still a coward. If you prefer evil we can agree to follow Mr. Dodson's cat and use words as we define them ourselves.
7.13.2005 7:00pm
Perseus (mail):
Apropos of Anderson's mention of Aristotle, here's one way that suicide bombers might be considered cowards. It is a common notion among certain segments of the Left that poverty is a root cause of this sort of terrorism. If so, Aristotle argues (Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. 3, Chap. 7): "To seek death as an escape from poverty, love, or some other painful experience is to be a coward rather than a man of courage. For to run away from troubles is softness, and such a man does not endure death because it is noble but because he is fleeing from evil."
7.13.2005 7:00pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Anyone happen to know anything about what the Qur'an or other Islamic texts say about courage? I sure don't.
7.13.2005 7:10pm
CitizenZ (mail):
We call the suicide bomber cowardly, I think, because we don't consider his death an act of bravery but of madness. The Islamists are all about telling us how much they love death as opposed to our love of life. So, to many of us, it doesn't seem particularly brave of them to choose the thing they love.

Contrast that with the bravery of someone who loves life but chooses death anyway in service to a higher cause. I think this description fits the U.S. military suicide mission mentioned in the analogy. Which is why the analogy is unpersuasive to me.

Once you subtract the idea of "bravery" from the suicide bomber's actual death, then you're left again with the cowardice of his tactics: surprising unarmed civilians (children, no less) and indiscriminately killing them. I have no problem calling that cowardly.
7.13.2005 7:23pm
Tony (mail):
I think the dialogue goes something like this.

A: Suicide bombers are cowards.

B: But they blow themselves up! That's not a cowardly act.

A: What? You're defending suicide bombers? Liberal! Why do you hate America?

Seriously, though, it is true in one respect: suicide bombers don't generally act on the strength of their own convictions alone. They are groomed, supported, and cajoled, and their families showered with benefits. They have the backing of religious authority as well as their peers. In some sense, they are weak and gullible people, too dumb to see they are being used.

Which is also true of the members of many a conventional army...
7.13.2005 7:57pm
Troy Jackson (mail):
I think a very interesting take on this was written up after the Cole bombing. It's on the old suck.com site as Them Against Fire. I go back to it every so often for the summary of the work of Marshall on why solders fight. Reading it now, especially the closing paragraph:

To suggest that an organized attack, brought off skillfully by members of what must be an extraordinarily cohesive organization, represents nothing more than some simpering spasm of pathetic hatred is to carefully miss the very large, very unpleasant point: People who destroy human life in this precise manner are not alone, and not disorganized, and very much not finished.

I find it a chilling reminder.

Offtopic- does anyone know whatever happened to the author, Chris Bray? I really enjoyed most of his articles on suck.com. According to the bio on the site for his pen-name of Ambrose Beers, he joined the infantry. He seems to have disappeared.
7.13.2005 8:25pm
Anonymous Coward (mail) (www):
I don't suppose it is necessary to dress up the mission to find examples of suicidal bravery

Interviewer: How did you motivate your men to feel that way?

Joe Foss: Well they all… you can't imagine… those of us who live represent those that didn't. They gave their lives as simply in those days as you go and deposit money to purchase something....

Joe Foss: Yeah, the bomber pilots - now, I never wanted to be a bomber pilot. I'd go nuts as a bomber pilot. You have to be braver than brave to sit there and take it, you know, and just drill on the target, you're going for the target, and you're going there in spite of everything.

And when say the copilot gets killed or a pilot gets killed, all those instances where it actually happened that way, they pull off the dead guy and another one gets in the seat, and go. They really earned their money. I don't want any part of that.

I am a loner when it comes to that, me and my airplane. I'm in control of that airplane all the way, and I'm not checking with somebody saying, "A little to the right and a little to the left, and blow them up in the middle." It was like, I don't want no part of that

Certainly people who fought each other bravely have often become friends later - under what circumstances is one likely to befriend a bomber who by whatever happenstance survived rather than aborted a mission?
7.13.2005 8:32pm
David Lundeen (mail):
The kamikaze pilots in WWII Japan were described as being coerced or duped, or cowards, by U.S. wartime propaganda . . . most historians seem to agree now that they generally really did view themselves as courageous martyrs. It seems that it is difficult for people to accept that giving one's life for a cause others oppose can be courageous in the sense that it involves all the sorts of self-sacrificing patriotism we reward when it's OUR cause. Recognizing their courage is not the same thing as agreeing with their cause. It's the simple recognition that virtues can be put to ends we don't like. Indeed, I think the failure to recognize their courage is a security risk, taken to its logical extreme--it's being dismissive of our foe's capabilities. Accepting that an enemy is willing to kill innocents and himself in zealous service to a cause completely alien to our own is frightening, but a necessary step in coming to grips with reality.
7.13.2005 8:40pm
cathyf:
The beauty of the term "splodeydope" rather than "suicide bomber" is that it delivers a far more on-target insult than "coward."

From a tactical point of view, a suicide bomber is not necessarily about targetting innocents (and in Iraq suicide bombers are attacking legit military targets.) It's about 1) disguising the bomb on the person, 2) having the person there to make realtime adjustment to the targetting and detonation decisions, and 3) not having to have an escape route, often the most complex part of any operation. To be fair, if the splodeydopes had access to our technology that can drop a cruise missile down somebody's shorts from miles away, then they would probably use that rather than suicide bombers, at least in some circumstances. And I certainly don't think that a cruise missile is a cowardly weapon.

Gotta agree, what makes a suicide bomber evil is his choice of targets and fighting out of uniform. The kamikaze were not cowards, or even evil; they were soldiers doing their jobs according to the laws of war.

cathy :-)
7.13.2005 8:47pm
Nels (mail):
Eugene says

Yet I think this proves my point. In the military, it's not considered "cowardly" to shoot someone in the back in a surprise mission. (It's also considered smart.) Such a killing may not itself be an act of great courage (though going on the mission more broadly may be courageous), but neither is it an act of cowardice.


The act is not cowardly only if they shoot an enemy that is armed and presumably defending against the possibility of such an attack. If they shoot unarmed non-combatants, then that's cowardly. The attack on the Cole wasn't cowardly, but I think blowing up innocent civilians is cowardly, dishonorable and uncivilized.
7.13.2005 9:04pm
Dan_P (mail):
"One analogy that comes to mind is a hunter deciding to hunt city pigeons rather than wild tigers."

I suggest replacing "hunt city pigeons" with "shoot my children in my back yard".

All You'll can debate the meaning and situational relativity of "cowardice" all you want.
It's been said about a different word, and my gut agrees about cowardice:
I know it when I see it.

Eventually the clash of "civilizations" WILL CLASH.
7.13.2005 9:14pm
RH:
I think Gregg Easterbrook put it best when this topic came up the first time around: "In life, it is cowardly to attack those who cannot resist and thus threaten you in turn; in war, it is cowardly to attack civilians."

To expand on that point, our enemies today have a choice of targets: unarmed civilians, or our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq (and around the world). It is certainly more cowardly to attack the civilians. I would go so far as to say it is an act of cowardice.
7.13.2005 10:11pm
Bruce Hayden (mail):
Mostly, I agree with Eugene here. However, I think that you might be able to argue that targetting civilians, esp. women and children, versus U.S. troops, because the later is much more problematic, is cowardly.
7.13.2005 10:25pm
Daniel Fox (mail):
The bombers may not be cowards, but the people who sent them out sure as hell are.
7.13.2005 10:35pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
I think Gregg Easterbrook put it best when this topic came up the first time around: "In life, it is cowardly to attack those who cannot resist and thus threaten you in turn; in war, it is cowardly to attack civilians."

Again, where does this leave the U.S. when it torched Tokyo, let alone Hiroshima?
7.13.2005 10:39pm
Anonymous Coward (mail) (www):

Again, where does this leave the U.S. when it torched Tokyo, let alone Hiroshima?

I have my own opinions as do others. Fuchida told Tibbets You did the right thing when they were together much later in Florida. I think Fuchida, who led the Pearl Harbor Raid, had better English than Tibbets, who dropped the bomb, did Japanese but I may be wrong.

I knew a P51 pilot who really enjoyed train busting (blowing up the locomotive steam boiler with machine gun fire from the air for those who've forgotten or never learned) as a kind of shooting gallery - of course there were flak cars on the trains - but he did acknowledge a preference for not thinking about blasting the locomotive crew with live steam. Damaging the German war effort? Absolutely.

After the trenches of WWI there were no civilians. Rumor has it the Canadians have a lovely WWI picture posted for their officers - This is Defeat; Avoid it.

Myself I'll distinguish targeted and collateral damage - I'll consider the tradition of open cities (Is Paris Burning?) and not so open ones. As John D. Cooper known as Colonel Jeff Cooper once said in effect - in planning the invasion (of Japan) I was planning my own death among many - and planning for at least 3 times as many Japanese deaths (1 million US = 3 million Japanese). See the casualty ratios for Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

When the intent is damage to the war effort I'll go along. Nacht und Nebel not so much and to repeat I have a real problem with people who kill children in order to appeal to our better nature and show us they themselves have none. I'll distinguish without addressing the case of children who are mining coal or stuffing shell casings or guarding Die Brucke or any of the other ways children might make a direct contribution.
7.14.2005 12:00am
Paul Gowder (mail):
I think the cowardice comes in refusing to live to confront the problems of the world, in destroying yourself and the challenges you face. Flight from life is more cowardly than flight from death. I think Camus would have some words on the topic.
7.14.2005 11:24am
jstokka (mail) (www):
Here is why they are cowards: In my view terrorism stems from an irrational belief that America is the cause of problems in the Muslim world. Every country has bad foreign policy. If America had failed to become the prosperous country that it is we could probably blame Britain or some other combination of countries for our problems. But we didn't fail because of our freedom and protection of individuals rights-- and our culture.

The terrorists, however, are unwilling to accept that their own culture rather than the "infidels" could possibly be the cause of their problems. So, they are willing to die rather than accept the truth. They are afraid of the truth-- and they would rather die than face it. That makes them cowards.
7.14.2005 11:49am
Anderson (mail) (www):
Anon Coward, are you under the impression that (1) no children were incinerated in Tokyo et al. or (2) that those children were part of the war effort?

When you're firebombing an entire city, "collateral damage" is a joke. It's like if Eichmann had said the Holocaust was for the purpose of making sure they killed all the Jews who might be conspiring against the Reich.

If "damaging the war effort" justifies burning up women and children, then suicide bombers who attempt to break a country's will to persist are "damaging the war effort." The fact that firebombing may be effective doesn't justify it, any more than that would justify suicide bombing.

To be clear, I'm not defending the suicide bombers; I think that both suicide bombings and the firebombing of cities are wicked and criminal. It's predictable, but disappointing, that the U.S. has never conceded that we became monsters in fighting the monsters.
7.14.2005 12:54pm
Michael Herz (mail):
I generally agree with Eugene, and the example that always comes to my mind is from the movie Independence Day. This was a huge, patriotic hit some years ago. As I recall, the earth is ultimately saved from alien attack when the ne'er-do-well, substance-abusing, bad-fathering, but underneath-it-all noble pilot, his last remaining missile jammed, flies his airplane directly into the alien mother ship, killing himself along with the enemy. This was presented, and received as, his redemption as a man and a fighter, heroic, and, there's no other word for it, courageous. (I feel like that movie has not been on TV much since 9/11, for the parallel is uncomfortably close.)

There are lots of, more than enough, condemning things to say about suicide bombers. But that they are cowards does not seem to be one of them (with the possible caveat that if the straight-to-heaven, eternity with scores of virgins stuff is taken seriously and literally that does arguably changes the picture).
7.14.2005 1:11pm
eddie (mail):
To carry forward from Mr. Herz's comment:

Suppose there is an evil tyranny. Let's further suppose that this evil tyranny is godless, perhaps even, dare I say, communistic, led by a megalomaniac worse than Stalin and Sadaam together.

Some coward straps a bomb on his back and blows this leader and his entire entourage and family and perhaps a few innocent bystanders to smithereens.

Ending 1
Out of the ashes of such a blast the phoenix of a democracy arises.

Coward?
Murderer?
Patriot?
Martyr?
Freedom Fighter?

Ending 2
Out of the ashes of such a blast is a reactionary regime even more brutal and totalitarian than before. All members of the bomber's family, race and religion are rounded up, herded into an abandoned soccer stadium in a remote province and used as ground zero for an a-bomb blast?

Coward?
Murderer?
Patriot?
Martyr?
Freedom Fighter?

This is not an apology for the senseless killing of humans. Nor is it a plea for "indictments and therapy".

I just don't know where it all ends. And debating whether such individuals are coward or not seems to be a parlor game for pundits who are the true cowards.
7.14.2005 1:25pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
"Pundits who are the true cowards"? Boo, Eddie. We're not pundits. We're intelligent people interested in making correct moral and ethical judgments. So sue us.
7.14.2005 1:54pm
Anonymous Coward (mail) (www):

Anon Coward, are you under the impression that (1) no children were incinerated in Tokyo et al. or (2) that those children were part of the war effort?
The answer to your question is that I am not under the impression that no children were incinerated in Tokyo - assuming arguendo what I believe to be true that in fact there were lots of children incinerated not part of the war effort I stand by my opinions that we were not and are not monsters for what we did. Further I'd be astounded that anyone in this forum should believe I might be so ignorant or deluded - although I saw the results in other places do I really come across as ignorant or deluded?

I knew people in the vicinity of Hamburg for that first firestorm. Some in Germany today say that Bomber Harris should be (have been) tried as a war criminal. I disagree. I'll continue to distinguish the Rape of Nanking as terrorist and the bombing of the home islands as targeted. Of course any case can be distinguished - "the holding is limited to red cars"

I'd be curious why somebody would call the United States monstrous in the sense that once committed minimizing casualties is a bad thing - I do think the skies should have darkened over the death camps (would killing children to slow the camp activity be equally monstrous?) but there is a strong case that getting it all over with as soon as possible is the minimax optimum.
7.14.2005 2:57pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Well, Curtis LeMay thought that he'd be tried as a war criminal if the U.S. lost; his opinion is an informed one.

But we seem to be the only ones interested in thrashing this one out, and I hesitate to appear to be hijacking this thread (a cowardly act?).
7.14.2005 4:13pm
Buhallin (mail):
One should be careful with the view that attacking easier targets is what qualifies as cowardice. The same could easily be phrased as "Attacking in the easiest manner."

We use a great deal of airpower in Iraq. We bombed Falluja back into the stone age, pretty much. If suicide bombers are cowardly for attacking those with no ability to retaliate, and they would be made brave by attacking a military target which could fight back... Would our own military not qualify as just as cowardly? If we choose a method of attack which prevents retaliation, when another exists which would cause more casualties, isn't that just as cowardly?

Attacking civilian targets is dispicable, but does not in itself rise to the level of cowardice.

I think part of the reason this distinction isn't made is because, as in Volokh's example above, we make a distinction between military actions and needs, and others. We consider soft targets and easy kills acceptable for military needs, but do not consider them acceptable for the other guys.

I also think the simple term "suicide bomber" is far too broad a brush in this discussion. There have been a great many suicide attacks targeting Iraqi police - undoubtedly a perfectly valid military target. Are these bombers just as cowardly as those who blow up a cafe or bus full of civilians?

Someone above had it right, I think. Calling them cowards is a way to demonize the enemy, degrade them. If they aren't cowards, then it may be possible to come to respect their sacrifice, and that leads to sympathy. And sympathy with the enemy is something we cannot allow.
7.14.2005 4:41pm
Anonymous Coward (mail) (www):
On the chance that my words are being interpreted in terms of easier targets instead of easier enemies let me repeat myself in quoting Umberto Ecco's phrase - not claiming his ideas just forestalling criticism for taking his words without attribution, further he may or may not have meant something quite different by them (though I don't think so given a context of unwarranted attack on a Jew) - when your real enemies are too strong, you must find weaker enemies - for me it is not a matter of easier targets but of easier enemies that is of scapegoating - Godwin's Law or Turner Diaries when destroying a scapegoat will solve all your problems, when destroying the innocent in the name of killing collaborators is your goal you have chosen a weaker enemy and that is cowardice. Whether the Jews, the Kulaks, the Bourgeoisie or the educated class building a Utopia by targeting the innocent, by blackmailing with the threat of violence against more innocents, gives us cowards.
7.14.2005 7:20pm
Jack (mail) (www):
Anonymous Coward largely beat me to my point, but here is another way to put it: When confronting a bully, one often says "pick on someone your own size." If we are to read the terrorists as having taken that advice, then their "own size" is evidently measured by unarmed and unsuspecting men, women and children. I can't imagine anyone denying this is somewhat less than manly, regardless of the suicidal nature of the tactic. Whether or not it is evil (and I agree that it is), "cowardly" seems an appropriate description.

(I like the substitution of the word "dastardly, by the way, if only because it harks back to a time when courage still meant something. But I had always thought it was a synonym of "cowardly" and Webster's seems to agree with me. In any event, I think we must allow people with less esoteric vocabularies the use of the more common term.)

Also, I am somewhat unimpressed with the analogy to a "suicide mission" against a military target. Of course military operations attempt to take the enemy by surprise, but that surprise is generally limited to people who could, if they were doing their job properly, discover the attack and defend against it. Suicide terror is aimed precisely at people who shouldn't have to wonder whether they are about to be attacked. In this sense the cowardice manifests itself in fear of confrontation with a superior force. It may be true that "cowardice usually consists of fear of death or injury" but death and injury are hardly the only things men fear.

Finally, I would suggest that anyone who initiates violence is acting, in a broad sense, out of cowardice. People who need to resort to the sword to promote their faith have little enough of it, I think. And lack of faith is a kind of fear -- perhaps the worst kind.

PS: A.C. -- it was the egg not the cat who was in the business of solipsistically defining his terms. But he always paid them extra. ;)
7.14.2005 10:59pm
Joel B.:
Paul Gowder hit it right on. That's why I tend to think that Suicide Bombers are cowardly. They're taking the easy way out...giving up on life, cashing in their chips in hopes of the 72 virgins or whatever. That's the cowardly deed, to slink away from the challenges that life poses in death...

Perhaps Shakespeare said it best and appropriately:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;


I suppose those of us who say the bombers are cowards are just coming out on the nobler in the mind to suffer side. Whereas those who say "not cowards" come out on the take arms against a sea of trouble.

I think to describe the suicide bombers as cowardly works, and doesn't, depending on your perspective.
7.15.2005 4:18pm