Sometimes, “Cowardly” Isn’t The Best Antonym For “Heroic”December 27, 2007
The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan’s democracy. Those who committed this crime must be brought to justice.
I could have sworn that the Bush’s use of the phase “cowardly act” sounded familiar. Indeed, Bush used it after the terrorist attacks of 9/11:
Make no mistake: The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.
Researching further, one finds that Bush has a penchant for using the adverb “cowardly” to describe a suicide bombing whenever the need to condemn it arises, whether it happened in Jerusalem, Jordan, Bali, or Lebanon.
I don’t know about you readers out there, but when I think of someone giving their life for a cause, “cowardly” isn’t the first word that comes to mind (regardless if innocents are killed). It certainly isn’t what I thought when 9/11 happened. In fact, I remember finding myself on a level of agreement with Bill Maher when he infamously said this:
“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, it’s not cowardly.”
Say what you want about it…but it is hard to describe the lobbing of cruise missiles as “brave” or “heroic”, that much I know, but to call it something else doesn’t mean you abhor the act, does it?
Must all acts of war have a courage meter? After all, the most important aspect of any particular method of warfare is its effectiveness from a tactical perspective. Somewhere along the lines, American troops abandoned bright red coats, drums, and marching straight into lead volleys, eventually switching to camouflage, silence, and taking cover. If George Washington were alive today, how would he describe an attack via cruise missile? I’m not sure it makes sense to go down this road.
Surely, there is a more accurate and descriptive adverb that one can attach to acts that falls far short of connotations of respect. “Foul”, “despicable”, and “contemptible” would be perfectly acceptable. So why “cowardly”? Over at Slate, Tim Noah pondered the same thing after 9/11 (also citing Clinton’s and Reagan’s use of the word), and I think he nailed it:
In truth, notions of “cowardice” and “bravery” are entirely irrelevant when we contemplate the horrors of terrorism. To call a terrorist “cowardly” is to substitute testosterone for morality. Somehow it isn’t enough to abhor an act of terrorism or even to promise to make the terrorist pay dearly. The rules demand that the terrorist be branded a sissy. This is not only a childish reflex, but one that weakens the moral force of the condemnation and thereby dishonors terrorism’s victims. After all, we don’t want brave people to slaughter innocent people any more than we want cowardly people to do so. Still, the public seems to demand that our presidents call terrorists cowards, and our presidents are too–well, cowardly–to deny them. (h/t Paul Krugman)