"Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts."
--President George W. Bush, September 11th, 2001
"Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."
--Bill Maher, Politically Incorrect, September 17th, 2001
"In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."
--Susan Sontag, The New Yorker, September 24th, 2001
In the hours and days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, American politicians, armed only with a sputtering, impotent anguish, struck back at the phantasms who'd caused such rapid and incomprehensible destruction. One after another, senators and congress members echoed President Bush's appraisal -- these suicide missions were cowardly acts. And, indeed, how else to react? The United States had just been dealt a devastating blow by an enemy whose methods had proven suprisingly, scarily effective: all we could do in response was to try to diminish its power somehow...
But the denunciations came with such mechanical frequency that they ultimately had the gauzey heft of so many campaign promises, and even worse, they failed to account for the terrorists' unwavering resolve. Indeed, the terrorists gave up their lives for their cause: could anyone willing to do that accurately be labeled a coward? This was a contradiction so apparently large that it was inevitable a few sharp-eyed pundits would spot it. Professional contrarian Bill Maher was one of the first; author Susan Sontag soon followed suit.
Of course, it's easy to see why Bill Maher and Susan Sontag have such a hard time reconciling cowardice with self-immolation: they have great lives. Maher has a forum to express his views to millions of people five nights a week. He makes lots of money. He gets good tables at the best restaurants. The world's finest concubines are at his disposal. Susan Sontag leads a highbrow version of Maher's life, which means she gets MacArthur Foundation grants instead of an all-access pass to that earthly Eden known as the Playboy Mansion. So even if Maher and Sontag do believe in afterlives, can anything that Heaven or Gan Eden have to offer match what they have here? When Maher dies, he'll be just another eternal soul, at best. Here, he's got his own TV show�
The hijackers, however, weren't secularized Westerners. By all credible accounts, they were pan-Islamist fanatics operating under the notion that a Hefneresque Allah would reward their martyrdom with beautiful, attentive virgins in Paradise. In other words, they didn't really believe that they were giving anything up. Instead, they believed that they were getting something: Bill Maher's life on an even grander scale, for all eternity, without the hassle of having to produce a TV show five days a week!
Under this premise, the terrorists' actions appear more greedy and aggrandizing than courageous. And while it surely took a great deal of faith in the promises of Paradise to steel their resolve, faith is not the same thing as courage, and faith and cowardice are not mutually exclusive.
So: courageous? cowardly? Does it really what matter exactly what we call the hijackers and their associates?
It does, because what we call them is obviously the first step in determining how we engage them.
In labeling the WTC and Pentagon attacks "cowardly," American politicians aimed to diminish the terrorists, to invalidate their methods and whatever grievances they might harbor, and to disqualify them from any concession or negotiation we might think to make with them. Unfortunately, these efforts were so emphatically transparent that they ended up inspiring a fair of share of skepticism: after all, if so many politicians were trying so desperately to reduce discourse about the terrorists to the simple narrative of "cowardice," didn't that sort of suggest that some dark, hard truths informed the terrorists' actions?
Careful stylist that she is, Sontag crafted her cant with a bit more subtlety than the politicians did. First she implied that the hijackers were courageous. Then she characterized courage as "a morally neutral virtue," a clever oxymoron that let her make her point without making it too strongly. By stripping courage of its moral authority, she didn't seem as if she were legitimizing the hijackers' methods or motivations too obscenely, but at the same time, of course, even a "morally neutral virtue" is, well, virtuous�
And if the terrorists were in some manner virtuous, perhaps we could engage them somehow, or at least respond to their attack in a way that was more thoughtful and more just than a reflexive, indiscriminate, even bigger attack of our own. Perhaps we even had an obligation to do so. This, ultimately, was Sontag's objective: to cast the terrorists and their actions in a more complex light than the "coward" label did, and to face up to our potential culpability in the matter, a culpability that the "coward" label automatically negated�
It was a good objective too, because as Sontag suggested in her short piece, "The unanimity of the sanctimonious , reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy."
But as it turns out, the national introspection that Sontag advocates grows increasingly superfluous with each passing day. Why? Because while two weeks have passed since the attacks occurred, no individual, group or nation has stepped forward to claim responsibility for them. The 19 dead hijackers left no documents that explicitly documented who they were or what they hoped to accomplish via their attacks. The suspected organizer of the attacks, Osama Bin Laden, has not claimed them as his handiwork.
And, thus, even if we were inclined to view the terrorists as something more than cowards who must be punished fiercely, even if we were inclined to negotiate, in a non-violent manner, some kind of truce that would prevent future attacks, we couldn't do it, because we don't know what the terrorists would demand to make that truce happen.
Instead, we're left to guess what they may want, based on things Osama bin Laden has said in the past, and on our own critiques of U.S. foreign policy.
If we remove the 6000 or so U.S. soldiers based in Saudi Arabia, will that be enough to stop additional attacks?
Will it also take an end to sanctions in Iraq?
Must we end our support of Israel?
If we agree to remove all American people and presences from any nation with a Muslim population, would that be enough? And given that there are now 6 to 8 million Muslims living in the United States, does this mean that all non-Muslim U.S. citizens will have to relocate to, oh, Greenland?
In the end, it's not that the terrorists are so courageous that makes them frightening. Instead, it's their silence, their refusal to claim responsibility for their deeds. Because, ultimately, the implication of that silence is obvious. The terrorists haven't told us how we might negotiate a peace, because the terrorists aren't particularly interested in peace. Violence is what drives them: it gives them not only an afterlife, but also a life. Indeed, in the culture the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, and other Islamists have fashioned for themselves, with its fatwas, military training camps, and restrictions on just about everything that doesn't involve holy terrorist action of one kind or another, it doesn't seem as if there's much room for anything except violence. And when violence becomes a culture's only means of expression, status, and accomplishment, then it doesn't really matter if that violence is most accurately described as "courageous" or "cowardly" or anything else. Instead, it just is. And if our only response to it is to give blood to the victims each time it decides to strike, then we will end up giving more blood than we can imagine.
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