The one I have in mind is calling suicide bombers cowards. This one’s been around for a while, but not all that long; but I do think that it predates the 9/11 attack. Every time I hear it, I shudder. The dictionary definition is rather straight-forward: “one who shows ignoble fear or timidity.” Ordinary Americans seem to accept this definition without any difficulty at all. Even a cursory look at the web shows many exchanges questioning this use of the word. The consensus seems to be: It takes courage to become a suicide bomber, not cowardice. Those on chat sites who disagree with this position show themselves to be quite incapable of using language as a carrier of truth.
Let me sharpen the issue. Let’s take a man who enlists in our volunteer army in a time of war. By doing so he agrees to fight in combat, thus endangering his life. The difference between this man and a suicide bomber, who also views himself as killing enemies, is the probability of paying the ultimate price. Are we therefore entitled to call the new enlistee a coward lite—and lite because he might survive his career under arms?
This subject has even attracted academic interest. Michael Weber of Yale has published an article in Public Affairs Quarterly (October 2005) titled “Are Terrorists Cowards?” It’s interesting reading. It instructs us concerning the mental acrobatics possible, indeed necessary, when we accept the premise, even if only for the sake of argument. Weber’s bottom line is that calling terrorists cowards is a rhetorical device to strengthen the American people to “support aggressive reply to terrorist attacks” and that “If this is right, and intentional, then perhaps Bush and other leaders who insist that terrorists are cowards are smarter than we think they are, however much we might hate to admit this.” — And I paid JStor $18 for the privilege of learning this?
The genuine value I obtained from the article is the reminder, Weber provides this in a footnote, that Bill Maher, the late host of Politically Incorrect, got his show cancelled when he opined that the 9/11 terrorists had been courageous rather than cowardly.
My bottom line, obviously, is that courage is courage, cowardice cowardice. Calling one the other can’t really fool the common people but may cause the privileged minority to lean every which way to stay on message. I also have genuine grounds for writing off our entire establishment. The center will hold, however, even if it has no voice.