Thursday, January 22, 2015

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Word of the month: "Coward."

Earlier this month, US president Barack Obama condemned the attacks on Charlie Hebdo's offices as "cowardly."

Earlier this week, filmmaker Michael Moore, responding to the film American Sniper, similarly condemned snipers in a tweet:

I don't often quote comedian Bill Maher approvingly, but let me take you back to the days of yesteryear -- just after 9/11, when Maher responded to the silly claim that the hijackers were "cowards":

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.

"Cowardice" is not a term which describes the good or evil of a particular action. It is a term which describes the absence of physical or moral courage.

The Charlie Hebdo attackers could not have expected anything but that they would be hunted down like dogs and killed (or, at best, caged) after their attack and did it anyway. They did it because they believed in something -- and whether or not what they believed in is evil is irrelevant to whether or not they were courageous or cowardly. Whatever else one might say about them, "cowards" is just not an applicable descriptor. By definition, believing in something strongly enough to give up your life for it is the opposite of cowardice.

Chris Kyle crawled into "enemy territory" with one comrade, carrying a bolt-action rifle. Yes, Iraq was dangerous for every invading/occupying American troop, but in most cases the danger was pseudo-random (you might or might not happen to be in a vehicle that hit a mine, etc.). In Kyle's case that danger was very particular to him personally. Whatever else one might say about him, "coward" just doesn't work on the level of physical courage.

Nor does "moral cowardice" work there. One does not become a US military sniper (or a Navy SEAL) by accident. It's not that he was chosen for the job and was too scared or felt too much peer pressure to say "no." He voluntarily joined the Navy and then he actively worked his way through the most rigorous training and selection process in the Navy (SEAL training is one of the few Navy schools you're allowed to just drop out of) to get one of the most dangerous jobs it had to offer.

I haven't seen the movie (I will later, I'm sure). I've heard conflicting opinions on it. But right up front, the "cowardice" accusation just plain doesn't work.

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