Bravery and Knavery

Courage, The Over-rated Virtue

By Matthew Hogan

It has become politically incorrect, to the point of evoking violent reaction, to suggest that the 9/11 murderers displayed "courage". Because I also don’t like applying that term to them, I don’t mind trashing it for a more accurate term. They demonstrated "boldness". "Courage" really means "boldness, but in a good purpose".

More important is this: they did not demonstrate "cowardice". One of the more common cliche’s is to call their acts "cowardly". That’s blatantly obvious self-deception. "Cowardliness" does not mean "boldness in a bad purpose". It is hardly cowardly for them to give up comfortable existences, risk detection over a long period in a foreign country for murderous conspiracy, and then, through delicate deception, seize jets, and slam themselves into a building.

It’s evil, so let’s not dignify it with "courage." But it is plain stupid to call it cowardly. Though we want to. Obsessively. Violently.

The deeper issue is this: boldness, as I am calling it, or even "courage" itself ought not to be considered an automatic virtue, though it typically is so regarded. Nor perhaps should "cowardice" always be a vice, as for example in cases where intelligent self-preservation is undertaken.

Courage is no more an absolute virtue than strength and intelligence are. There exist diabolical intelligence, diabolical strength, and diabolical courage (which I again refer to as boldness.) Most of the world’s villains have been persons of great courage/boldness. Hitler won the Iron Cross. Lenin endured exile, vilification, prison. Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat rarely shrunk from life-threatening attacks in their careers. Alexander the Great, world-plunderer, was at the forefront of battle. Followers of theirs, equally committed to villainy, have given their lives for their causes.

An American soldier facing al-Qaeda fighters in the hills of Afghanistan used the other b-word for courage. In a New York Times article I noted but currently cannot retrieve, he described his opposition as "brave".

The root of bravery is selfless dedication. And there is no reason to assume that such dedication cannot be to a cause that is fundamentally wrong, and wickedly so. Despite rough treatment (and don’t be so naive as to think they are really getting soft treatment) many Guantanamo inmates are keeping mum and taunting their captors. These are dedicated souls. Dedicated to a demented, self-righteous, and zealous form of religion and violence. But dedicated for sure nonetheless.

The danger of the rhetoric of calling the 9/11 criminals and their cohorts "cowardly" results in underestimating the tasks required to root them out. As we can see, they seem to have eluded capture or total annihilation at Tora Bora, and are still popping up in bombings here and there in Pakistan, and on-going plots now and again.

Only by undermining their dedication can we win in the long run against a force like al-Qaeda. Fear alone cannot do it, as they are not cowards. Fear is proper against their passive allies in the short run, and application of raw focused strength will be the more important method for that short run. But in the longer term, however, other incentives are needed. These must undermine their dedication and the advantages such dedication provides. Primarily this requires isolating them within their own communities, and luring away the hesitant and less-committed among them with enticements of a better future.

The latter steps require making sure that our policies in the Middle East are responsible, built not merely on our capacity to frighten (though this is one essential of a political actor), but on our ability to live up to our values. We must direct our national goals overseas towards actions consistent with a government dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal. That requires boldness. Good boldness, in fact.

Let’s call it courage.